Preparing for Pandemic Influenza -- Business Continuity Planning

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There have been a variety of urgent appeals from leading public health groups and the U.S. government for communities and businesses to aggressively prepare for the possibility that an influenza pandemic could develop from the current H5N1 avian virus circulating in many parts of the world. Future Health Solutions has released a White Paper - Pandemic Influenza - Business Continuity Planning to assist companies in their planning efforts.

There has been a great deal of concern throughout the world about the spread of avian flu (“bird flu”) and the potential development of a human influenza pandemic. This concern has been universal throughout the leading public health groups, including the World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), and many national governments throughout the world.

There have been a variety of urgent appeals from these groups and the U.S. government for communities and businesses to aggressively prepare for the possibility that an influenza pandemic could develop from the current H5N1 avian virus circulating in many parts of the world.

This virus has spread to over 50 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa (over 35 new countries since the start of the year), and has resulted in a mortality rate greater than 50% of the humans infected to date. Serious influenza pandemics of have impacted us throughout history, and this is not a new development.

If you have been following this topic in the news, you may have your own concerns about the risks of pandemic flu, as well as what can be done to help prepare your company.

No one can accurately predict when the next influenza pandemic will occur or how severe it will be. In order for businesses to minimize economic impact (or for some companies, potentially business survival), consideration should be given to the potential spectrum of pandemic scenarios as part of disaster preparedness and business continuity planning.

“In the event of a pandemic influenza, businesses will play a key role in protecting employee’s health and safety as well as limiting the negative impact to the economy and society. Planning for pandemic influenza is critical.”

"Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government will come to the rescue will be sadly and tragically wrong"

Michael Leavitt, Secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The level of impact to different sectors of society may vary significantly by industry sector, as well as the severity and length of the outbreak.

  • Projections from a variety of world and national financial groups, including the World Bank, U.S. Congressional Budget Office, and major investment firms predict an impact of 5% - 7% of the World Gross Domestic Product for a serious pandemic outbreak (including both supply and demand).
  • A report by a leading Canadian investment firm, BMO Nesbitt Burns, warned of significant economic disruption impact and potentially a global depression from a severe outbreak.
  • According to a recent report from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a severe flu pandemic would cause a major recession: an 80 percent drop in economic activity for the arts, entertainment, and dining sectors; a 25 percent decline in retail sales; and a major slowdown in travel.

Just as the severity and timing of the health impact is difficult to determine, the impact on business and the economy are also difficult to determine with any level of accuracy. However, what is clear, is that all sectors of the economy, including business, need to rapidly and aggressively prepare.

Business Continuity Planning - Executive Summary

An influenza pandemic is different from a physical disaster, which is the focus of most business continuity plans (BCPs). Most business continuity planning typically focuses on events that are caused by either natural disasters (e.g. hurricane, ice storm, tornado, earthquakes etc.), terrorist acts, accidents or other events that temporarily disrupt business.

Because of the differences between events that are the typical focus of business continuity planning, new or revised planning is often required to prepare for a pandemic outbreak.

A pandemic has unique characteristics when compared with a more typical disaster:

Widespread Impact:

The impact of a pandemic would be widespread, even global in extent, and not localized to a single area. Therefore there may be little outside assistance from national and local governments, as well as other company locations. Many business continuity plans (BCPs) assume some part of an organization is unaffected and can take up the required capacity. That is not likely to be possible in the event of a pandemic.

Not a Physical Disaster:

A pandemic is not a physical disaster. It has some unique characteristics that require measures to limit social contact such as restriction of movement, quarantine, and closure of public gatherings.

Duration:

A pandemic would not be a short, sharp event leading immediately to commencement of a recovery phase. An influenza pandemic can last for one to two years, over the different waves of the outbreak. Many BCPs assume the event is short/sharp and that recovery can start immediately. Business plans should assume that an influenza pandemic would last for at least 18 months.

Limited Notice:

Based on the last two pandemics, it is estimated that the next pandemic virus will be present in the local country within several weeks to a month after it emerges in another part of the world, but it may occur much sooner due to increases in the volume and speed of global air travel. Upon arrival, the virus will spread across the country with great speed. The first peak of illness in the local country is likely to occur within two to four months after the virus arrives.

When pandemic influenza appears in your local country, it will probably be some weeks before the full impact on the workforce will be felt, although there may be some early impacts resulting from closures of schools and similar public health containment measures.

Primary Effect is on Staffing Levels:

Unlike natural disasters, where any disruption to business service provision is likely to be hardware-related, disruption to business operations in the event of a pandemic is anticipated to be mainly human-resource oriented.

Businesses should plan for up to 30 - 60 percent staff absences for periods of about four to six weeks at the height of a severe pandemic wave, and lower levels of staff absence for a few weeks either side of the peak.

In addition, it has been observed that an influenza pandemic usually spreads in two or more waves, either in the same year or in successive influenza seasons. A second wave may occur within two to nine months of the initial outbreak wave and may cause more serious illnesses and deaths than the first. In any locality, the length of each wave of illness is likely to be eight to twelve weeks, depending on the virulence of the virus (higher virulence leads to a faster spread, and sharper, shorter peaks of infection).

Staff absences can be expected for many reasons including:

  • Illness/incapacity of the employee (suspected/actual/post-infectious);
  • Some employees may need to stay at home to care for ill family members;
  • People may feel safer at home (e.g. to keep out of crowded places such as public transportation);
  • Some people may be fulfilling other voluntary roles in the community;
  • Others may need to stay at home to look after school-aged children (as schools are likely to be closed "snow days")
  • Public transportation may be temporarily closed by government/public health directives.

Future Health Solutions has published a white paper – Preparing for Pandemic Influenza - Business Continuity Planning that provides some background on the science and history of pandemics, as well some of the issues that companies should consider as part of their business continuity planning.

The white paper is located at: http://www.futurehs.com/ThoughtLeadership.htm

About Future Health Solutions:

Future Health Solutions works with leading companies to assist in their preparation efforts related to pandemic influenza. Our advisory staff includes some leading experts in consulting, infectious disease and business continuity planning.

We also maintain a web site that includes frequent updates on the latest developments with avian flu from around the world. The site typically receives over 20,000 visitors a week from over 100 countries. The site is http://avianflu.futurehs.com/

If you have any questions about pandemic influenza, or would like to have a presentation to your senior staff about this topic, please call us at (860) 368-2435. Please keep us in mind if you require outside expertise and assistance for this complex and potentially urgent issue.

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Chris Spence
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