Expert: Government, Business Not Prepared for Pandemic Flu

By J.J. Smith Sep 18, 2008

U.S. firms should be working to protect critical infrastructure specialists such as coal miners, shipping crews and health care professionals from pandemic influenza, says a researcher on infectious diseases.

Like earthquakes, hurricanes and tidal waves, pandemics—which are very different from other disasters—will occur, yet the U.S. government encourages its citizens to prepare for a pandemic like it does for other emergencies, says Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research, in the Sept. 4, 2008, webcast “The Pandemic Threat: Preparing an Organizational Response,” sponsored by Logistics Health, Inc. of La Crosse, Wis.

The U.S. government’s emergency response program, the National Response Framework, was issued in January 2008, followed in April 2008 by the National Management System (NMS), which outlines the U.S. response to an outbreak of pandemic influenza. However, that response will result in disaster, Osterholm says. The response is based on the U.S. Forest Service’s approach to combating forest fires in which all the resources that are needed to fight a forest fire are made available as needed, he says. The problem with the NMS approach for combating a pandemic is that it relies on rushing all necessary local, state and federal resources to the scene of a disaster until it is “overwhelmed with resources,” he says.

Implementing a pandemic flu plan with assumptions that resources will flood into an area where an outbreak has occurred ignores the fact that every village, town, city and state will likely be dealing with such outbreaks and will direct whatever resources they have locally, Osterholm says. “There will not be any resources to spare, and any resources that are available will be quickly outstripped, leading NMS to fail,” he adds.

Reliance on the NMS plan is preventing proper pandemic flu planning by state and local governments, as well as businesses, Osterholm says. In addition, businesses that are part of critical U.S. infrastructure are not taking steps to increase the likelihood their employees will survive pandemic flu outbreaks; without those employees the chances of the collapse of those critical infrastructures are greatly increased.

The failure of critical infrastructures such as energy production, food supply and health care because pandemic flu spreads among employees will result in an unknown number of deaths, Osterholm says. While a pandemic will not damage power lines, it could still threaten electricity production because 50 percent of all electricity produced in the United States comes from coal. Because low-sulfur coal is necessary to meet air quality regulations, mining the coal used to generate electricity has become a highly specialized industry, with low-sulfur coal being mined primarily in Montana and Wyoming, he says. However, employees of those mines are not on any pandemic influenza vaccine priority list. If the nation runs out of coal it runs out of electricity, and without electricity the rest of the infrastructure fails. There will be an unknown number of deaths not caused directly by pandemic flu but by the lack of electricity needed to keep water pumps going, hospitals operational, and heating and air conditioning units running, he says. Business communities should take the lead on finding out how well stocked with coal reserves their local electric utility is, as well as urging the utility to support getting low-sulfur coal miners added to the pandemic flu priority vaccination list.

In addition, an outbreak of pandemic flu will create fear and panic in every sector of society, and businesses can expect that a percentage of their workforce will not show up for work because of fear, Osterholm says. Critical infrastructure businesses are not immune from employee fear of pandemic flu, he says, citing a survey at a health care system near Detroit. About half of the people depended upon for health care during a health emergency say they will not show up for work, yet the health care industry—along with other industries—has not considered what it will do if forced to operate with half a workforce, he says.

In addition, food supply is a fragile component of the critical infrastructure, yet food transportation and distribution has the potential to collapse because of a lack of preparation. In the United States it is expected that food will be available when it is wanted, but in a pandemic flu outbreak if the flu spreads among truckers, making them too sick to drive, the food system could run out of stock almost overnight, he said. Neither the government nor the business community has addressed the food system and its fragile nature, he adds.

J.J. Smith is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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