2006 SUMMIT COVERAGE: Businesses zero in on details of pandemic flu planning

Feb 17, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – Critical for businesses in preparing for a flu pandemic will be taking care of their primary asset—their employees. This was an overarching theme expressed by participants in this week's Business Planning for Pandemic Influenza: A National Summit, held in Minneapolis.

Breakout sessions during the meeting, designed to identify gaps and issues in business continuity planning for a flu pandemic, allowed the more than 300 participants interaction and practical strategizing within their own business sectors.

Sectors represented were healthcare and related services; manufacturing; information services; agriculture and food; finance and insurance; professional, scientific, and technical services; trade (retail and wholesale); leisure, hospitality, and entertainment; transportation; and energy (utilities, and mining).

Results of the first day's breakout sessions, compiled and summarized by Kristine Moore, MD, MPH, CIDRAP Medical Director; Jill De Boer, MPH, CIDRAP Associate Director; and Mariann Johnson, organization development consultant, M.T. Johnson & Associates, Minneapolis, showed that good communication with employees was seen as essential, with a focus on providing clear, accurate, and honest information both prior to and during a pandemic.

Of primary importance to a business, participants said, is having an adequate workforce that can be drawn upon, given the prediction that a large percentage of workers may be unable to fulfill their responsibilities over the span of a pandemic.

Given that forewarning, employers can do a number of things to ensure worker availability and productivity. Among these is making the investment to support working from home or other remote sites and developing worker training programs that emphasize cross-training, replacement training, and recalling and training retirees.

Along with a critical focus on workers, participants identified several other areas of primary importance for businesses in pandemic planning:

  • The need for involvement by business leaders and government leaders at the highest levels in planning strategies
  • The need for regulatory relief
  • The need to reconsider the consequences of the current "just-in-time" model for obtaining materials, supplies, and goods
  • The need to address global considerations that include staffing issues, cultural differences, and government regulations and restrictions

Specific strategies or "best-practice" approaches to plannng included development of systematic and proactive procedures to shut down and restart operations. These actions would include assessing cash reserves and developing modeling of time periods for shutting down. In addition, managing client expectations in advance was seen as important to maintaining operations.

Best-practice examples from different business sectors were summarized. For healthcare, one of the key strategies noted was to keep workers working and to continue to provide routine care along with the special care needed in a pandemic. The need to develop a comprehensive supply plan specific to healthcare, including routine medical supplies and personal protectie equipment, was emphasized.

Businesses in the field of energy said they needed to look at the minimal acceptable level of service needed to remain operational and to develop proactive plans for responding for civil disturbances. In manufacturing, the question "Will there be demand for the same products after a pandemic as there is now?" needs to be examined, that group noted. These businesses and others need to be aware that there may be a consumer practice shift after a pandemic.

For transportation, key strategies will be to maximize efficiency and to relax existing work rules so that more products can be moved by fewer workers.

The 2-day conference was hosted by the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) in collaboration with the Minnesota and US Chambers of Commerce. Participants came from over 200 companies which represent 40% of the Fortune 50 and which together employ more than 7.5 million people.

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