New efforts help businesses prepare for next H1N1 wave

Sep 18, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – With the health of small businesses at stake in fragile economic times, federal officials and one of the nation's top business groups pushed new efforts this week to help companies prepare for the next wave of the H1N1 pandemic influenza.

Today federal officials hosted a Web telecast to touch on highlights of new pandemic planning guidance for small businesses, released earlier this week. And the US Chamber of Commerce released a 16-page pandemic planning guide for businesses titled "It's Not Flu As Usual: An H1N1 Business Preparedness Guide."

Joseph Zepecki, deputy associate administrator in the office of communications at the US Small Business Administration, said about half of US adults in the private sector work for small businesses, which are the "driving the engine of how we get out of a tough recession."

Karen Harned, executive director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Legal Center, said most of the NFIB's 350,000 members have 10 employees or fewer. With employee absences among the top concern of all size of businesses, small ones have unique concerns. "Most of our members don't have a real deep bench," she said.

Web telecast participants said the key task for businesses is to protect their employees and have an action plan drawn up ahead of time for managing absences.

Anthony Garza, MD, chief medical officer with the Department of Homeland Security, said employees who come to work sick at a small business operation could "take out the whole team if they get everyone else sick."

Lisa Koonin, MN, MPH, a senior adviser with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's influenza coordination unit, said the upcoming flu season will see the pandemic H1N1 virus, with likely circulation of seasonal strains as well. "They [businesses] need to be prepared for lots of flu," she said.

She said federal officials are urging businesses to plan for two pandemic scenarios: one similar to the mild-to-moderate outbreak the nation is experiencing now, and a potentially more severe pandemic.

Harned said now is a good time to review and amend as needed company leave policies. "Make sure you're treating everyone the same and clearly communicate the plan to employees," she said. "Setting forth the rules of the game going in is the best legal protection."

Koonin urged businesses to factor flexibility into their leave policies. "You don't want disincentives for employees to do the right thing," she said.

Firms can also use this time to determine what resources are available as backup during employee absences. Zepecki said temporary agencies and family members are two options that small firms can research and plan for now.

During the question-and-answer period of the webcast, some viewers had questions about how to handle potential abuses of more lenient leave policies.

Zepecki said abuses may not be a big problem in very small businesses, which have more of a family-like atmosphere. He urged businesses to shift their energy more toward planning.

Harned said, "If [leave-policy abuse] happens, you can deal with it later, but the focus now is it's best for sick employees to stay home."

Meanwhile, the newly released business preparedness guide from the US Chamber of Commerce offers firms tips on how to keep employees healthy and maintain business operations during flu season. It also urges businesses to have plans in place for responding to a more severe pandemic and includes a 10-point checklist.

For example, the guidelines advise small businesses to appoint someone to be responsible for workplace infectious disease issues and to update employee telephone rosters, buy emergency supplies, and review emergency plans with employees.

Ann Beauchesne, the chamber's vice president of national security and emergency preparedness, said in a press release that the H1N1 outbreak shows how rapidly a new flu strain can emerge and spread across the globe.

"While the initial wave of the H1N1 flu was moderate, the nation cannot let down its guard," she said. "Federal officials warn that a second wave this coming fall and winter could be more widespread and severe."

See also:

Sep 18 US Chamber of Commerce press release

US Chamber of Commerce business pandemic planning guidance

Sep 14 federal pandemic flu guidance for small businesses


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