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Experts: Businesses should prep for bird flu: Vast majority of U.S. companies have not budgeted for possible pandemic, despite warnings from health officials

April 10, 2006

The much-hyped Y2K computer bug came and went without so much as a whimper from a whirring hard drive. But unlike the threat of malfunctioning computers, health experts warn that the potential danger of an avian flu pandemic is far greater.

In the event of a widespread outbreak in the United States, companies large and small need to be prepared in order to keep interruptions to a minimum, they say.

"I am an evangelist for having a contingency plan," said Peter Beering, who serves as Indianapolis' terrorism preparedness coordinator. "If the building is on fire, there are lots of indicators. It is less obvious if a pestilence is crawling around."

But few companies seem to be heeding the warning. Only 7 percent of U.S. companies have budgeted for pandemic preparedness, according to a March 30 report by New York-based Mercer Human Resources Consulting.

Preparation might include ensuring employees' paychecks are automatically deposited in case they can't come to work to receive them, and ensuring medicalleave and long-term disability policies are up to snuff.

What has health experts concerned is that the need for a vaccine is likely to outstrip supply-and the supply of antiviral drugs is likely to be inadequate early in a pandemic, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

An outbreak involving a highly virulent flu strain-similar to the one in 1918 that killed 40 million people worldwide, including 11,000 Hoosiers-could influence the economy in the way an average postwar recession would, a report from the Congressional Budget Office said.

"Life would not be as we know it if this were to happen," said Dr. Judith Monroe, commissioner of the State Department of Health. "We don't want people to panic, but we don't want to be complacent, either."

Start planning now

For businesses, part of the planning mirrors what might be suggested to prepare for any disaster. For instance, appointing a coordinator or team with defined roles and responsibilities is key to starting the process, disaster experts say. Other tasks such as identifying suppliers, subcontractors, products and logistics required to sustain operations are essential as well.

The danger is that some business owners who spend the time and money to develop a plan never revisit the procedures. Experts recommend periodical dry runs to make sure the plan is practical to execute and employees understand it.

Employers are encouraged to grant absences for reasons beyond personal sickness. School closures or family-member illnesses are a few of the examples the government cites in its preparedness materials.

Mike MacLean, a Baker & Daniels LLP partner and member of the local law firm's benefits and executive compensation practice, has been advising clients on how to prepare for a possible pandemic.

"The most important thing that businesses need to do is start thinking about these issues now," MacLean said. "From what I understand, one of the challenges is when it hits, it will hit everybody at one time."

No large-scale relief efforts will be available, similar to what occurred following Hurricane Katrina. Instead, regions will have to fend for themselves, experts predict.

Vaccine shortage

Scientists are certain another pandemic is imminent. What remains uncertain is when, the severity and whether the bird flu virus will be the impetus.

A flu pandemic occurs when a new influenza emerges for which there is little or no immunity in the human population. It begins to cause serious illness and spreads person-to-person worldwide.

People so far have contracted the bird flu only through contact with an infected bird. But experts fear it will mutate or combine with a different virus to create a new strain easily passed among humans.

The virus has already spread to 37 countries and killed more than 100 people. While it has not yet reached the United States, experts warn that the virus could arrive in Alaska first, in birds that migrated from Asia, and spread through the rest of North America as birds migrate southward this fall.

With no effective vaccine available, the strain could kill millions of people. The one vaccine that has been tested proved effective in only 54 percent of those who got two shots, 28 days apart, of the highest dose, according to results published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Further, the government's vaccine stockpile contains enough for just 4 million people, far below its initial goal of 20 million.

"It becomes a pretty sobering experience pretty quickly," said Mike Miles, a vice president and senior employee-benefit consultant at locally based Gregory & Appel Insurance. "It's almost sci-fi."

Miles, who counsels clients on human resources issues, helped host a seminar in March regarding the bird flu pandemic.

From an insurance standpoint, he said companies will need to consider-particularly those that self-insure-whether programs are adequately funded. Bereavement policies also may need to be relaxed.

Technological advances

One advantage employers have in maintaining operations that they did not have in the past is the advancement of technology and the ability for workers to telecommute. The government suggests companies establish policies for flexible work sites and hours.

The advent of e-mail and handheld communication devices such as the Black-Berry should lessen potential hardships, experts said.

On the downside, most companies are operating at very lean levels, making it difficult for them to fill vacated positions, said Karl Ahlrichs, senior human resources consultant for Professional Staff Management Consulting in Carmel.

"Ever since the bubble burst in 2001, organizations have methodically re-engineered themselves to be super-efficient with very few people," Ahlrichs said, "and there aren't reserves in the work force right now. Absenteeism is felt far more painfully."

The government encourages companies to set guidelines to prevent the spread of influenza at the worksite by promoting "respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette." Translation: Don't cough or sneeze on your neighbor.

For those who have become exposed, or are suspected to be ill, immediate and mandatory sick leave should be granted. If many require hospitalization, hotels-because few will be traveling-could be transformed into care facilities, said Monroe of the state health department.

Companies should restrict business travel to affected geographic areas and evacuate employees working in or near affected areas when an outbreak begins. Other recommendations can be found at www.pandemicflu.gov.

Said Miles: "It is not going to be another Y2K; it is going to happen."
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