While it may be hard to believe, we are just over 90 days away from the 1st of October - which in the northern hemisphere -traditionally marks the beginning of our `flu season’.
With a pandemic virus in the mix this year, few scientists think this will be a `normal’ flu year.
Which means that as a society, we have just over 3 months to prepare for what may be a serious event. And that assumes we don’t get slammed early, like we did in 1918.
Make no mistake. This is not a drill.
Regardless of what you may have heard about this pandemic being `mild’, or a `non-event’, it is likely to have a significant impact over the next year or two.
No one knows, with certainty, what will happen of course.
There are open questions regarding the virulence of this virus, and what that is today could very well change over time. But it doesn’t take a high mortality virus to inflict heavy damage on a society or its economy.
Most experts - looking at the continued spread of swine flu well into summer here in the northern hemisphere, along with the impact that countries south of the equator are seeing – expect that considerable challenges lie ahead.
Pandemic viruses – by definition – are viruses to which most people have little or no immunity. So we can probably expect a lot of people to get sick this fall.
How many? Again, only estimates are available.
But authorities are expecting somewhere around 1/3rd of the population to contract the virus. That’s 100 million people in America alone.
Or if you prefer, more than 2 billion people worldwide.
Triple the number of people normally sickened each year by influenza. And unlike the seasonal influenzas we normally see, this virus appears to favor young adults and children over the elderly.
And that could have serious ripple effects throughout our society, and our economy.
While many of the effects of this pandemic won’t become obvious until we are in the midst of it, one of the easier predictions is that we will be forced to deal with a higher rate of absenteeism from the workplace than normal.
There is virtually no doubt that health authorities will urge everyone with `flu-like’ symptoms to stay home for at least 7 days.
Not everyone with these symptoms will have the pandemic virus, of course. There are other respiratory ailments such as Parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus, metapneumovirus, influenza B, and adenovirus that will probably also circulate this winter.
So the number of people who `think’ they have the virus may be higher than 1/3rd of the population.
And to this sizeable group, you have to add an unknown number of people who will have to stay home to care for a sick child, spouse, parent, or friend.
There will be others who will have to stay home to care for their children if schools and day care centers are closed.
And of course, there may be some people are are simply too afraid of the virus to come to work. That number will depend, no doubt, on the eventual virulence of the virus.
The impact on the workforce could be sizable. During the peak of the flu season, some companies could see 30% or more of their employees out due to the pandemic.
Some businesses may be forced to close their doors temporarily. Other companies may lose customers and market share to companies that were better prepared to deal with a pandemic.
And some businesses may never recover.
Which is why it is imperative that every business begin to prepare now for this fall. This is no longer an academic exercise.
If you are a business owner or manager, and you don’t already have a solid, well rehearsed, and workable pandemic plan in place . . . well, the clock is ticking.
And with 90 days till October, time is short.
If you haven’t done so already, you need to appoint a CPO – or Chief Pandemic Officer – for your company.
That can be you, or someone you trust, but it must be someone who has the time to devote – and the authority to make things happen – that will be needed to get the job done.
Each business is different, and so there is no off-the-rack pandemic plan that will fit your needs. Your CPO, with the help of managers, and employees, will have to craft something suitable for your business.
You don't have to be an expert in pandemics, or pandemic planning to get started. There are plenty of resources available on the Internet. Just Google Business Continuity Pandemic, and you'll have a month's worth of reading at your fingertip.
Here you will find `toolkits', basically checklists, for starting your pandemic plan. While you will have to modify these toolkits to fit your situation, they provide an excellent starting point.
Another essential read is the CDC's Community Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Mitigation (PDF - 10.3 MB) guidelines on actions, designed primarily to reduce contact between people, that community government and health officials can take to try to limit the spread of infection should a pandemic flu develop.
Appendix 4 contains information for businesses and other employers.
Two other essential resources, specifically geared for business owners, are these guides from OSHA.
Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic (PDF - 313 KB) (Occupational Safety & Health Administration)
Provides guidance and recommendations on infection control in the workplace, including information on engineering controls, work practices, and personal protective equipment, such as respirators and surgical masks.
Guidance for Protecting Workers Against Avian Flu (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
You’ll find more at OSHA’s Worker Safety and Health Guidance for H1N1 Flu.
These documents should get you started.
A pandemic is not a short-term crisis. It could drag on through the entire fall and winter, never quite go away next summer, and return with a vengeance next fall.
We simply don’t know how long it will last.
In what is already a difficult economic environment, failing to deal decisively and effectively with this pandemic threat could prove fatal to a large number of businesses.
The good news is, there is still some time to prepare. The bad news is, I don’t think many are listening.