Business leaders stress importance of pandemic planning

Nov 29, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – The specter of pandemic influenza raises a raft of questions for businesses, and businesspeople who gathered in Bloomington, Minn., today urged their peers to quickly seek answers to those questions.

Good preparation can make the difference in whether a company survives the economic turmoil of a flu pandemic, said Jay Schwarz, vice president for information systems with Alex Lee, Inc., a company in Hickory, N.C., that includes wholesale and retail grocery and food services.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce hosted today's event. It included a keynote speech by Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), publisher of this Web site, as well as a forum featuring business representatives who are working on pandemic preparedness.

Osterholm warned that a pandemic will leave no part of the world untouched. "Please understand that this is not an optional planning activity," he said.

Even in the unlikely event that the United States escaped the pandemic itself, the country would suffer "huge" economic damage because of its interdependence with the rest of the world, Osterholm said.

"What flu will do is interfere in the normal commerce, which we have cut to razor-thin time and inventory [margins]," he said.

Schwarz was one of four businesspeople who shared information on how their companies are planning for a pandemic and highlighted key issues at the intersection of private enterprise and public calamity.

The private sector accounts for about 85% of critical infrastructure in the United States, said Wayne Brown, in store/business incident management for Wells Fargo and Co. bank. Nonetheless, many people are unfamiliar with incident management in the business community at large.

Brown's suggestions for businesses included the following:

  • Prepare well for the common flu
  • Stay informed
  • Promote awareness of the problems associated with pandemic flu
  • Adopt social distancing practices to reduce infection
  • Expand online business and telecommuting opportunities
  • Develop strategies for interactions involving high customer contact
  • Determine how to minimize business disruptions with customers and contractors
  • Collaborate with local health officials and hospitals
  • Create a business continuity plan.

Mark Klein is communications director for Cargill, Inc., of Minneapolis, an international provider of food, agricultural, and risk management products and services. Cargill created a task force last spring to address avian flu as both a human and an animal health issue. The company developed five scenarios. Three scenarios explore the ramifications of avian flu among animals; the other two are based on the assumption that an avian flu virus could develop efficient human-to-human spread.

"That's where we're focusing a lot of our efforts right now," Klein said. He emphasized the importance of developing scenarios thoroughly.

"Going through the scenario plan was very difficult for us at Cargill," he said. It is important to be disciplined and explore the implications of each scenario to understand how it will affect the company, the employees, and the community where the company is located, he added.

Julie Craven, vice president of corporate communications with Hormel Foods Corp., said pandemic flu differs in at least one key way from other crises. Hormel is a multinational meat and food products company based in Austin, Minn.

"Many of the things we've planned for on the crisis side, we can control," she said, noting that many emergencies are localized to one or a few communities or confined to business property. She provided an overview of Hormel's planning that included:

  • Updating the crisis plan annually
  • Working on message training for internal and external audiences
  • Sharing the plan so those who need to understand it do understand it
  • Testing and drilling on the plan. Tabletop exercises have been an effective tool at Hormel, Craven said, but added that it's important to conduct two kinds of drills—one with the boss present and one with the boss absent.
  • Considering scenarios by audience: how do you work with employees, customers, consumers, and the media?

Schwarz, with Alex Lee, Inc., gave an overview of how his company developed a pandemic plan.

"There are concrete steps we found that you can do," he said.

Planners at Alex Lee began by selecting 16 people from key business function areas, Schwarz explained. Those 16 people received pandemic flu information before their initial meeting. For the main planning session, the employees were split into two more manageable groups of eight. Each group attended a half-day meeting.

Instead of offering dry statistics about the impact of a pandemic, Schwarz noted, "We personalized it." As a result, the groups worked within a framework that described how many Alex Lee employees might die of the flu and how many employees could experience the death of family members.

Then the two groups brainstormed problems that could arise in 15 different focus areas, such as consumers, employees, suppliers, media, and government.

"We literally wall-papered the conference room" listing the challenges posed by a pandemic, Schwarz said.

He had prepared by developing a list of questions with which to pepper the groups as they discussed the 15 areas. "It was amazing to me how seriously the group took this thing. They got it right away," he said.

An unexpected theme emerged from both groups: the need to put aside competition during a pandemic.

"We do not want to even think about competitive advantage. We want to help the food industry. That's how serious this is," Schwarz said.

Schwarz worked with others to consolidate the reams of information developed in those two meetings, then reconvened both groups to re-examine what had emerged. People voted on priority projects, and they completed a 29-page analysis of the impact of pandemic flu on the company.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Schwarz concluded. Alex Lee employees have converted that analysis into a spreadsheet divided into three categories: things to do immediately, things to do before a pandemic, and things to do during a pandemic. Those categories help the company prioritize the work, he said.

Alex Lee has also assigned tasks to company quick-response teams to ensure that pandemic preparations continue.

"We're very serious about it, and we're going to get it done," he said.

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