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How to Prepare for a Pandemic

Prepare your business for the outbreak of bird flu or any other possible pandemic before you're really in trouble.
August 1, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/160212

When Hurricane Rita was headed straight for Houston last summer, Jay Steinfeld gathered his company's department managers to answer some basic questions: How will we keep filling and tracking orders? How will we work with our suppliers? What if employees can't make it to work?

The result was a 15-page road map for how Blinds.com, Steinfeld's web-based company that sells window treatments, would continue operating during a natural disaster. The company's 48 employees were given passwords to access the company network from home and a phone number to find out whose help was needed immediately after the storm. Suppliers were given backup numbers to track production schedule changes. Each employee received a copy of the plan.

Blinds.com lost only one and a half days of productivity because of the hurricane. Now its business continuity plan lies in wait for the next disaster. "Within an hour, we can have the whole company ready to go," says Steinfeld, 52, founder and CEO.

But there's another potential disaster coming onto Steinfeld's radar: avian influenza, otherwise known as bird flu, the respiratory illness that has spread to 45 countries so far and has killed more than 100 people who have come into contact with sick birds. The most virulent strain, H5N1, hasn't spread easily among people, but experts warn the virus could mutate-with dire consequences. An avian flu outbreak could incapacitate up to 40 percent of a company's work force for at least two weeks and bring commerce to a crashing halt. The United Nations estimates 150 million people could die.

Experts warn it isn't a question of if a pandemic will hit; it's a question of when. "Pandemic influenza is going to happen. It's like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis," says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "It would only take a grain of sand to bring the gears down."

The last major pandemic, the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, killed 100 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans. It moved swiftly: Philadelphia reported 289 flu deaths on October 6, 1918 alone. Two weeks later, New York City registered 851 flu deaths within 24 hours. Some towns closed every shop. Stores that stayed open kept customers outside.

It's easy to think "That was then, this is now." But we're even more at risk in a highly mobile, just-in-time business environment where 80 percent of our medicine is imported and an effective bird flu vaccine isn't available yet. Meanwhile, the federal pandemic plan could take five years to implement.

Smart companies are revisiting basic hygiene issues, cross-training staff, and deciding how to relocate work if an entire office gets sick. They're also asking vendors how they're preparing. "Companies are starting to realize [they] don't operate in isolation anymore," says Rob Dyson, business continuity practice consultant for Accenturein Dallas. "Everybody is relying on other companies through their own supply chain."

Companies are being advised to create telecommuting plans, though there's no guarantee the internet could handle the bandwidth surge if millions of Americans suddenly began telecommuting. Gas supplies could dwindle if one-third of oil workers fall sick, breaking supply chains. As transportation gets more difficult, emergency items will get priority while other shipments sit in limbo. "One of the things this really calls into question is the basic overall integrity of the infrastructure," Osterholm says. For you, it means pondering operations in such an environment.

Also ponder the legal issues. OSHA mandates that employers provide a safe work environment, and employees could file lawsuits claiming their employers didn't do enough to protect them from a pandemic. A written plan, training and protective equipment are all liability-limiting steps. With the amount of attention avian flu has already received, "it's going to be hard for an employer to argue to OSHA that this was [a] hazard we didn't know about," says Peter Susser, an employment law partner in Littler Mendelson's Washington, DC, office. How employers handle sick time during a pandemic is another legal land mine. Think about how you'll relax absentee policies, Susser advises, adding that it's not too early to line up staffing providers.

Entrepreneurs can also get the issue in front of local business groups and elected officials, since a pandemic would be handled primarily at the local level. Osterholm says, "[The] whole goal ought to be just getting through it--meaning coming out alive."

Coming out alive requires planning, and business owners are planning for something that remains hypothetical. Steinfeld doesn't think an avian flu pandemic is likely, but he thinks it's important to be prepared, even for an ordinary flu. "Who knows if any of this stuff is going to happen?" he questions. "You just say, '[Regardless] of what the disruption is, are we ready?'" With luck and a plan, your business has a better chance of pulling through.