By MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/Web editor of Risk & Insurance®
The World Health Organization declared on June 11 that the current H1N1 outbreak has reached Phase 6. The swine flu has gone big time.
For businesses, Phase 6 is the last alarm bell.
"It needs to be considered a final call for pandemic preparedness," said Dr. Joan Pfinsgraff, director of health intelligence at iJET, a business-resiliency specialist.
Companies need to use the opportunity to evaluate how their preparedness plan has held up so far. Have your office hygiene and cleaning practices been stepped up? Have you reviewed your sick policy, leave policy, travel policy, work-from-home policy and any other policy that involves employees coming and going? Is your IT system ready to handle more employees staying away from the office?
"Is there a structure in place so that decisions can be made quickly and communicated up and down the line based on new information as it comes out?" continued Pfinsgraff, and do you have a system to collect that information--both from the outside world and from within each of your business operations?
Organizations must also have plans in place to maintain a chain of command for each department and location, no matter how many employees go down.
"So there is always someone there to be the leader," she said.
And decisions should have been made as to what is mission critical--in terms of people skills, travel, facilities and products.
NOT TOO LATE TO TURN BACK TIME
To be honest, companies should have tackled these questions when the WHO declared Phases 4 and 5.
But if you haven't yet put into place a pandemic preparedness plan--which was the case for 43 percent of respondents in a recent iJet survey--now's not the time to panic.
Pfinsgraff recommends dusting off your general business-continuity plan and refocusing it on pandemic. How?
"The most important thing from a pandemic planning standpoint is people," she says.
Particularly important to build into your BCP are ways for your people to communicate and redundancies in skills within offices and departments. And remember--you always need a leader.
THE HEALTH IMPACT OF PHASE 6
Let's not let unprepared employers off the hook too much however. The WHO announcement of Phase 6 is not really news.
The conditions of a pandemic have existed for weeks now, according to Dr. Andrew Coburn, vice president of catastrophe research at insurance modeler Risk Management Solutions Inc., which owns a proprietary pandemic model. WHO phases are based strictly on the spread of the disease, not severity. Community outbreaks must occur in at least one country in two or more WHO world regions for it to be officially defined as Phase 6. Consider that cases have been detected in 74 countries, as far-flung as Australia, England and America.
Member countries appeared to have urged the WHO to hold off on declaring Phase 6 until now, in order to avoid a public panic and because many nations' costly pandemic plans kick into gear at Phase 6, requiring them to release stores of antivirals, for instance, or to deploy healthcare workers for longer shifts.
Also, the WHO had the luxury of waiting, because the H1N1 pandemic is not as severe as once feared. According to RMS, this outbreak appears to rate a 2 on the CDC's five-point Pandemic Severity Index (the CDC has not officially released its severity estimate).
What does a 2 mean? The case fatality ratio for such a pandemic would range from 0.1 percent to 0.5 percent, translating to 90,000 to 450,000 U.S. deaths.
As for the number of cases, about 27,737 people are officially infected now (though many thousands more probably are), 144 have died. Over the course of the next months--especially as the second wave hits the Northern Hemisphere next fall and into winter--many more people will catch it. The going assumption among experts is that one-third of the world population could be impacted.
Coburn says that RMS estimates that the pandemic could create conditions two to three times worse than a typical flu year. Ordinary flu kills as many as 36,000 Americans each year and infects as many as 20 percent, according to the CDC.
THE YOUNG AND THE WORKING
Despite the apparently lower severity, the key for this pandemic is that most people infected could be young--aged 25 to 55.
"This is the workforce age group that's getting hit," said Pfinsgraff.
And, according to Pfinsgraff, from what scientists can tell from cases so far, when the virus turns severe or even deadly, it is also targeting this younger-to-middle-aged group--particularly those members with pre-existing conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease and even pregnancy. About 40 percent of those victims hospitalized to date in New York had a history of asthma; about 10 percent were pregnant women.
"These are groups you might not expect to get hit hard by flu," she said.
Still, even if one-third of the population gets hit, hard or not, all of your workers will not be out on sick leave at the same time, nor in the same locations. The illness could be spread around the globe over the course of 18 to 36 months.
That might be poor consolation if you haven't got your preparedness plan in place yet.
June 11, 2009
Copyright 2009© LRP Publications