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New index rates severity of pandemics, advises action

By Kathy Gurchiek  2/16/2007
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 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) unveiled the latest influenza preparedness tool on Feb. 1: a Pandemic Severity Index.

Modeled along the lines of the hurricane ranking system, the index has five different categories of pandemics accompanied by recommended measures. How severe a pandemic is judged to be is determined by the percentage of infected people who die from that pandemic, according to the CDC.

A category 1 pandemic is as harmful as a severe seasonal influenza season, while a pandemic as bad or worse as the 1918 flu pandemic that resulted in approximately 675,000 deaths in the United States and up to 50 million worldwide would be ranked category 5.

A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. Scientists cannot yet determine whether the H5N1 avian influenza, or bird flu strain, will cause the next human influenza pandemic, according to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

The virus does not currently transmit easily from human to human and H5N1 has not been found in the United States in either birds or humans, according to the HHS, but there were 116 confirmed bird flu cases and 80 related deaths around the world in 2006, according to the World Health Organization.

A vaccine is the best protection against pandemic influenza, but one is not likely to be available at the beginning of a pandemic, the CDC notes.

Folded into the ranking system are guidelines, focusing primarily at the community level, on measures to take during the pandemic to stop or limit its spread. Those measures are based on the severity of the pandemic. Under a Pandemic Severity Index (PSI) category 2 or 3, workplaces would be advised to consider modifying schedules and rely more heavily on telework and staggered shifts, while those steps would not be generally recommended under the far less severe PSI category 1.

Employers also can go to for a list of CDC and HHS guidelines and a checklist of precautions they can take in the event of a pandemic flu.

“It’s important that we try in advance to imagine and evaluate some of the steps that could be taken to slow the spread of pandemic influenza in communities,” CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding said in a press release.

She was proud of the CDC’s work with federal and state partners in developing the PSI and linking it to potential actions, she said.

“We recognize that much work remains, but this new approach should help communities, schools, businesses and others strengthen their pandemic influenza plans.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Feb. 6 unveiled new workplace safety and health guidance to help employers prepare for an influenza pandemic.

The guidance, developed with HHS, describes the differences between seasonal, avian and pandemic influenza; gives information on the nature of a pandemic, how it is likely to spread and how exposure is likely to occur.

It also divides workplaces and operations into four risk zones based on the likelihood of employees’ occupational exposure to pandemic influenza; recommends work practices employers can take, and looks at the value of equipment, such as respirators and surgical masks, in protecting employees.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to

Related articles:

CDC Chief Says Not Yet Necessary for Firms To Report Expats with Avian Flu, SHRM Online Global Focus Area, January 2007.

Many workers fear losing jobs if flu pandemic strikes, HR News, Nov. 3, 2006.

A Global Pandemic Will Require Unique Approaches, SHRM Online Global HR Focus Area, November 2006.

Pandemic flu: Not if, but when, experts say, HR News, Aug. 2, 2006.

Pandemic summit finds business, government unprepared, HR News, Feb. 17, 2006.

Emergency Response Toolkit, SHRM Knowledge Center. 

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