The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a checklist of activities that businesses can do now to prepare for a future avian flu pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the Disability Management Employer Coalition, the employer-based organization that provides practical training, tools and peer support to optimize workforce productivity, employers may be waiting for more concrete guidance before they prepare for this potential crisis--the kind of concrete guidance they'll only get when zero hour arrives.
Zero hour in this case could occur, according to experts, when an avian flu virus, so-called because it mostly infects birds, infects and then mutates inside a person. Out emerges a new virus strain, passable from human to human, and it goes on a worldwide tear. The costs could reach $800 billion to the global economy, according to the World Bank. Costs in human lives could range from 100,000 to 2 million in the United States alone, the Congressional Budget Office reported.
At the time of this writing, however, the avian flu can only be passed from bird to human. The mutation hasn't occurred. All human cases have been in Asia, reaching only as far west as Turkey. And American employers are left wondering what to do, or not wondering at all. In the DMEC survey, 41 percent of the employers responded their company isn't discussing the potential pandemic.
Of the remaining 59 percent, more than one-third weren't sure what initiatives are being discussed, or that their company's initiative is to do nothing at this time. Another one-third said their company's initiative is to wait for information from the CDC on how to handle an avian flu pandemic.
Joseph Wozniak, chief financial officer and vice president of membership at DMEC, wasn't surprised by these answers. "They're waiting for direction from someone," he said of employers, "but that tells me that they're not really doing much at this point in time."
Shouldn't the CDC checklist count as direction?
"The checklist is really a framework we're recommending," said the CDC's Dr. Toby Merlin during a Marsh panel discussion on avian flu last December. It should help to dispel the myth, he said, that businesses can do nothing to prepare when in fact they can. There are 35 steps on the checklist that businesses can take.
Merlin said the most important step businesses can take now is contacting their community's health organizations. But the checklist covers a range of other preparation measures: from identifying an in-house pandemic coordinator to training an ancillary workforce, from establishing policies for telecommuting and staggered shifts to planning how to deal with foreign travel, employee compensation and sick leave during a pandemic.
From the DMEC flu survey, however, Wozniak got the impression that the CDC checklist isn't what employers are waiting for to act upon.
"How can you deal with something that hasn't happened yet?" he said.
In the meantime, employers are taking care of a present threat--seasonal flu. The "regular" flu hospitalizes more than 200,000 people and kills 36,000, each year, according to the CDC. That equals roughly $20 billion in losses for U.S. employers if 15 million of their workers get the flu.
More than 80 percent of employers surveyed by DMEC provide flu shots to their employees, 72 percent picking up the tab. About 90 percent encourage their employees to stay at home if they have the flu. And 13.1 percent measure absence days during the season to gauge the effectiveness of these programs. Those are best practices to adopt if you haven't already, said Wozniak.
February 1, 2006
Copyright 2006© LRP Publications