2006 SUMMIT COVERAGE: How will the infrastructure fare in a flu pandemic?

Feb 15, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – Putting an additional stressor, such as a flu pandemic, on an infrastructure that is already stressed and running at a stretched capacity merits great concern, said experts convening yesterday at a national summit on business planning for pandemic influenza in Minneapolis.

Among the most important areas of contingency planning for such an event is how to manage workers, both those who are ill and those who remain well. In addition, strong leadership is needed at all levels of government to help businesses prepare for such a pandemic, concluded participants in the panel, titled "Cross-Cutting Critical Infrastructure Availability and Business Continuity."

Speaking on the vulnerability of the power grid to a pandemic flu outbreak, Massoud Amin, DSc, Director of the Center for the Development of Technological Leadership and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Minnesota, said that "the system is already close to the edge" in terms of available fuel sources as well as the entire infrastructure, including transmission, high voltage, and distribution.

"Can we handle unexpected demands on a system that is already stressed if a major global disruption occurs?" he asked.

According to Dr. Amin, one of the key concerns is the availability of enough people to operate systems if a pandemic occurs. "Organizations have gotten to a point where they have been downsized, right-sized, and they are nearly capsized," he said. Given the already reduced workforce in businesses, what will happen in a pandemic that is projected to reduce the workforce by 35%? he questioned.

Echoing this concern, Anne Marie Kappel, Vice President, World Shipping Council, Washington, DC, reiterated the impact of a pandemic on a system (in this case, transportation) that is already stressed and that relies heavily on people. "If we talk about a pandemic that will impact 25% to 30% of the workforce and you have an industry that is structured with millions of dollars of assets, none of which can operate without people, this will have an impact on the system." Any business that relies on goods has to factor this into their preparedness plans, she emphasized.

Along with factoring in the reduced workforce because of illness, an equally important focus needs to be on how to manage workers who remain healthy. "Part of dealing successfully with the pandemic will be dealing with the healthy," Kappel said, stressing the need for healthy transportation so workers can get to work. The message that it is safe for people to go to work in the midst of a pandemic must come from the government, according to Kappel, similar to what happened during the SARS episode when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stepped in to reassure cargo workers that they couldn't contract SARS from handling cargo. She emphasized the need for strong leadership in mitigating this "fear factor" that would further reduce the workforce and slow operations.

Former governor of Minnesota Arne Carlson agrees that leadership is key to successful pandemic planning. "The only institution that has the capacity to bring people together is government," he said, adding that government needs to provide a clear, broad understanding about what the pandemic is, what its potentialities are, and what kind of role individuals need to play. As current chairman of RiverSource Funds, a large Minneapolis employer, Carlson said he has not yet received even one phone call regarding the pandemic. "That's wrong," he said, adding that businesses need to contact their state and federal government officials to get basic information about contingency plans in the event of a pandemic.

For Marshall C. Sanders, CPP, Vice President, Global Security, Broomfield, Colorado, a key point for businesses in pandemic planning is looking at the capacity requirements to support the 25% to 50% of the workforce that might be called upon to work remotely during a pandemic. Issues include identifying who the workforce is (eg, the percentage who need to work onsite, who can telecommute, and who need to be online), ensuring access to licenses in advance, making sure support services are available, and addressing privacy issues.

Steven Ross, MD, Director, Enterprise Risk Services, Deloitte & Touche LLP, New York, commented that developing a plan for how to deal with employees working remotely underscores the need to focus on good management versus planning. "The point is [that] this is not a planning issue, it's a management issue," he said, adding that the workforce can be made much more productive if people are given the ability to work from wherever they are. Also, if connectivity slows down during a pandemic, he noted, businesses can try to stagger workers so that, for example, some workers work mornings and some work afternoons.

Although telecommunications depend extensively on the power grid and therefore will be affected if the power goes out, Sanders emphasized that the industry can sustain capacity to serve customers for a limited period of time by, for example, relying on generator-based power. He also emphasized that the communications infrastructure is provided with priority assistance under the National Security Emergency Agency planning structure that was created under the Kennedy Administration in the 1960s.

To best prepare for a pandemic, the need for all sectors of infrastructure to work together was emphasized by Dr. Amin who reiterated the need for integrated assessments and collaboration among sectors to prepare and deal with a pandemic.

The Business Planning for Pandemic Influenza national summit, held Feb 14 and 15, was hosted by the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of this Web site; the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce; and the US Chamber of Commerce.

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