Monday, July 13, 2009

Planning for Flu Season

In past posts I have made light of the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic, arguing that it's unlikely to be the magnitude of the 1918 or even 1968 outbreaks. I have changed my mind about the seriousness of the situation, because:

1) Lack of immunity to this new strain of flu means that we are facing a problem this fall and winter, even if H1N1 doesn't mutate to a more virulent form. We are facing a much worse flu season than usual, at the very least.
2) When one child died of swine flu in New York City this spring, numerous schools were closed. The same thing happened in Texas, even though the child who died was a pre-schooler visiting from Mexico. We in Toronto should remember the enormous impact of SARS. The reaction to swine flu (whether we agree with it or not) will cause severe disruption.
3) Our precarious global economic condition means that we are more vulnerable as a society: less able to cope, and more prone to negative economic/social impact. This added shock will tip more companies over the edge into bankruptcy. All levels of government will be less able to summon resources. At this point, a bad flu season could send us into inflation, stagflation, and even a depression.

In light of this, it seems vital that we all plan for the coming flu season (December through April). With luck, enough of us will get the flu shot that this year's flu season won't be a disaster. But there's enough of a chance of serious problems that we should all be thinking ahead and making plans.

I remember the 1968 flu season, when I was 10. Kids in upper grades had to help run the classrooms of kids in lower grades because so many teachers were ill. At my school there seemed to be no plan at all for how to cope - and that might have been because the principal was out sick. Planning requires committees and written strategies that don't rely on the health of any individuals.

Companies should be gearing up right now to prepare for a prolonged period when many employees can't get into work. (Employees might be ill, but also their kids might be ill or their schools might be closed; transit could be affected by transit employee absenteeism; the public might be warned against taking public transit due to disease transmission; who knows.) IT departments should be busily setting up VPN so that employees can work from home computers. Some employees should be issued laptops. Everyone should be signing up for Skype. There should be identification of people who must be in the office and they should be planned for: where will they park if transit is down and parking is congested; etc.

HR should be creating guidelines for dealing with new issues that will arise: How to encourage people to come to work? How to make employees take hygiene seriously in the office? How to handle prolonged staff absenteeism, sometimes when not directly ill? There may be opportunities: for example, employees with medical conditions may be higher on the list for the vaccine.

Plans should be made for reducing vulnerabilities: what will you do if your suppliers are unable to provide you with inputs? (Alternative suppliers should be geographically distant in case an area is shut down.) How will you cope if your courier company has no working employees, or your employees and customers can't travel?

Organizations can also take steps to reduce illness. A humidifier in the office might reduce transmission. Plans should be made for getting flu vaccine for your staff (keeping in mind that there's not going to be enough for everyone). Anti-virals (Tamiflu, Relenza) may also help for staff who have to work with the public (although anti-virals may not be the silver bullet we hope, in part because the timing of delivery is crucial and because the virus could mutate to be resistant).

In a bad pandemic, the public may be warned against handling cash, cheques or post because of their ability to transfer disease. If this might affect a business, what can be done?

Companies who foresee problems and plan for them may have a competitive advantage over companies that do not.

Here are some useful checklists.

On a personal level, the main way to avoid getting infected is to practice social distancing: keep more than a meter away from other people. We all need to educate ourselves about how to reduce the severity of the flu. During an outbreak we should stop shaking hands. Cash and mail have been serious problems in previous flu outbreaks. Face masks can be effective but only if handled properly. When sick, you need to stay home, take care of yourself and avoid exposure to other disease. If you must go out while sick, you must wear a mask.

People with kids need to plan for what they'll do if schools close. Adults with some teaching ability might consider applying to be a supply teacher to help schools stay open.

If the flu incidence is high, pharmacies and even grocery stores might operate at reduced hours. There might be days when transit isn't running, or we might be warned against taking it. It is recommended that we all have food, water and medicine to last us at least two weeks.

People on contract don't get paid when they don't work, so contractors should be prepared for some non-paid time. In addition, vulnerable companies might not make it: there are going to be more lay-offs.

Here is a personal checklist.


1 comment:

pediatric emr said...

Nice idea! it is good to plan before the flu season comes. It is one way of flu prevention. Thanks for sharing.