Swine flu: What did we learn from bird flu planning

Mass absenteeism, shortages planned for in 2007 pandemic scenario that reached phase 5

Two years ago, financial services firms tested a pandemic scenario that began with a few flu cases and ended in a workplace absenteeism rate as high as 50%. There was also a breakdown in basic services, resulting in garbage piling up on the streets. The premise -- a worse-case senario designed to stress the response -- was that the World Health Organization (WHO) had reached alert phase 5, a pandemic, and escalated from there.

Overnight, the WHO increased the alert level to phase 4 for the swine flu, indicating a "sustained human-to-human transmission." But U.S. health officials aren't certain what they are dealing with just yet. The number of reported swine flu cases in the U.S. remains small and infections have been largely mild. In a teleconference today, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), continued to stress that health officials will "approach this investigation and our control efforts aggressively."

The paper-based test conducted by the financial services sector in 2007 with the help of the U.S. Treasury was in response to the threat of avian influenza, or bird flu. Some 3,000 participants went through a series of exercises that made them test their operations as absences increased and supply chains weakened.

The scenario ( available online) tried to recreate a real pandemic. For instance, in the first cities impacted, it describes increased purchases of nonperishable goods, predicted a rise in the dollar's value as a safe haven, and anticipated questions from employees who wanted to know what was being done to keep their workplace safe. It tried to consider every possibility.

"I think we are well prepared - I think a lot of sectors are better prepared than they were a few years ago," said Shawn Johnson, a senior managing director of State Street Global Advisors in Boston, who is also the head of the Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council, one of the groups that ran the 2007 pandemic test.

Johnson said he was briefed by the U.S. Deptartment of Homeland Security this past weekend, and again today. He says it is still "early days," and only triggering a review of procedures. But he saiud they are not ruling out that things can change quickly in such a case.

Gartner Inc. analyst Rick DeLotto said th eWHO phase-level is not going to impact businesses, but it would affect decisions to close local schools and care for the elderly.

DeLotto is advising companies to check their telecommuting capabilities, as well as make sure that assistant managers can take over if need be. But pandemic planners have warned that high demand from people accessing the Internet at home could lead to usage restrictions.

If absenteeism rises, "there are going to be a lot of very rapidly promoted assistant managers who have to have the right permissions and provisioning," DeLotto said.

He said that urging companies to take a second look at travel may be a moot point, however. "The economy has done that for us," he said.

In addition to letting employees know that they are responding to this threat, Companies need to urge people to wash their hands, as well as making face masks available, DeLotto said.

In Boston's Logan Airport today on his way back to San Francisco, Michael Shuster, an attorney at Fenwick & West LLP, said he could smell alcohol being used to wipe down tables, but he didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

Shuster, who has a background in life sciences as well as law, said his firm has the technology in place to enable employees "to work very effectively from home." Most documents are stored on servers, he said.

Shuster said he has no immediate plans to begin working from home, unless there are flu related deaths of working-age people near him. At that point, it may make sense to help prevent the spread of disease and telecommute, he said.

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Patrick Thibodeau

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