Unlike an earthquake or tornado, pandemics can last for months, even years. While the long-term nature is not pref- erable, it does give us one major advantage – the ability to adjust our response as we go along, not just clean up and prepare for the next disaster. On June 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel H1N1 virus out- break the first influenza pandemic of the 21st century. Many experts who had been following the H5N1 virus for years expected the next pandemic to be of avian origin and to start in Asia, so the emergence of “swine flu” in our own
backyard came as quite a surprise to many in the emergency management community.
As of Sept. 20, 2009, there have been more than 300,000 laboratory confirmed cases of
pandemic influenza H1N1 – including 3,917 deaths – in 191 countries and territories
reported to WHO. The WHO announced in July that case counts were no longer
representative of the infection levels and that it would stop counting individual
cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that
the virus had infected more than 1 million Americans as of this summer,
and it continues to spread.
Unfortunately, no one can predict exactly what the 2009/2010 flu
season will look like. Influenza viruses are inherently unpredictable,
which means we have to be prepared for any scenario. Emergency
managers can take stock of the lessons learned from the initial
H1N1 pandemic outbreak to improve their response plans now.
Based on my work with clients throughout the H1N1 outbreak, and my interaction with disaster planners around the
world at various industry conferences, I have identified four
major lessons from the H1N1 pandemic that disaster planners should pay particular attention to as they prepare for the
winter flu season:
Lesson 1: Employee absenteeism can be
unpredictable, as employees won’t be affected
According to a recent Trust for America’s Health
(TFAH) report, “Pandemic Flu: Lessons from the
Frontlines,” one key learning from the initial H1N1 outbreak was that school closings have major ramifications
for students, parents and employers. School closures
during the initial H1N1 outbreak in the spring were not
system-wide, making it difficult for companies to assess
which employees would be absent from work to stay home
with their kids.
Companies must take a more nuanced approach to preparing for employee absenteeism. It’s not enough to simply
assume that 30-40 percent of your workers across all departments will be absent. One unique consideration with H1N1 is
that it has had a more severe impact on certain population subgroups, including young people ages 4-24 and people with underlying health conditions. We saw effects of this with hundreds of
school closings this past spring. Then countless summer camps were
affected by H1N1, which is a likely indicator of what to expect during
this flu season.
I recommend developing the appropriate human resource policies necessary to manage employee absenteeism due to school closures. Also, create a
detailed list of employees with children and their school districts/daycare centers.
That way, you will have an accurate list to refer to and cross-check when you want to
determine which employees may be absent due to specific school closures.
DISASTER RECOVER Y JOURNAL FALL 2009 13