Business experts share pandemic lessons learned

Mar 24, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – With pandemic flu activity declining over the past few months, businesses have a chance to retool some of their response plans, while many grapple with issues such as protective equipment shelf life and how to protect employees when pandemic or seasonal flu returns, corporate executives said today at a webinar.

Two business experts who spoke today said the pandemic plans their companies made back around 2005 helped minimize disruptions during recent pandemic H1N1 waves. Both speakers work for global companies that faced a variety of novel H1N1 situations across different parts of the world.

Scott A. Mugno, JD, managing director for FedEx Express Corporate Safety, Health, and Fire Prevention, said, "We were warned we'd have to go it alone, and that's what happened. Without planning we could have struggled, and we did not."

The webinar was sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) Business Source, an online infectious-disease preparedness resource for businesses. It also featured Penny Turnbull, PhD, senior director for crisis management and business continuity planning for Marriott International, Inc.

Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, editor-in-chief of CIDRAP Business Source and director of CIDRAP, which publishes CIDRAP News, told webinar participants that, although influenza A activity is quiet, with no evidence of a third wave, business pandemic planners should keep in mind that the pandemic H1N1 virus is unpredictable. They should also be alert for other disease threats, such as H5N1 avian influenza, he said.

As business leaders reflect on their recent pandemic flu experiences, Osterholm advised them to think more broadly about its impact, aside from just categorizing it by severity level or number of deaths. He pointed out that the virus took its greatest toll on younger people, and an early analysis suggests that the current pandemic virus is killing people earlier in life, compared to past pandemic patterns.

"We need a new way to describe and measure pandemics that includes life lost, healthcare impact, and supply-chain impact," he said.

Turnbull said a new challenge that Marriott faced was how to extend consistent pandemic messaging across different brands of franchise hotels that it doesn't operate on a day-to-day basis. Marriott ended up making its pandemic flu materials to all of the sites with the expectations that guests expect the same message from all of the properties.

The heightened emphasis on keeping sick employees home also presented a challenge, she said. "In some cases we had to counsel managers that they could send sick employees home. We hope this becomes culturally acceptable at Marriott, not just during the pandemic."

Both Turnbull and Mugno said having a single corporate source for employee questions helped build confidence and minimize confusion, and they added that keeping the plans flexible was helpful, especially when the pandemic turned out to be mild to moderate, rather than the severe scenario many had planned for.

The two experts also emphasized that relationships with public health authorities were helpful and need to be refreshed and maintained. However, Mugno said vaccine availability caused some friction. He said media allegations of Wall Street firms getting some of the early doses has had a chilling effect on businesses hoping to secure doses to protect their risk groups, and he wishes that public health officials would have done more to defend the idea of making some of the vaccine available to the private sector.

Mugno said personal protective equipment stockpiles were "incredibly important" during the pandemic waves. The supplies not only played an important role in protecting employees, they provided a "comfort factor" for employees and customers. "They knew we had it, and it was ready to go," he said.

In the early days of pandemic flu spread, the company quickly realized it needed to move some of the supplies closer to employees in hard-hit areas such as Mexico, he added.

As businesses look ahead to the postpandemic phase, Turnbull advised business continuity planners to have discussions with leadership about tweaking and maintaining their pandemic plans. She emphasized how important it is for planners to show the value of risk assessment of factors that threaten education. "They [the leadership] don't know what they don't know. It's up to you to fill in the gaps," Turnbull said.

Both Mugno and Turnbull advised businesses to leverage their flu prevention messages with other events, such as national preparedness month in September.

Another next step is to keep vaccinating and to start making immunization plans for the next flu season, Mugno said, adding that public health workers at one FedEx site in Indiana recently went to the facility to administer the pandemic H1N1 vaccine. He advised businesses to use employee interest in the pandemic vaccine as a launching pad for future vaccine campaigns.

Osterholm agreed with the emphasis on vaccination, saying, "It's important to lay out and make available the vaccine."

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