Businesses show little interest in avian flu threat

While New Hampshire public health officials are working hard behind the scenes to be prepared if and when avian influenza strikes, the state’s businesses seem to have shown little interest in what is being described as a potentially devastating pandemic.

News reports in recent weeks have been filled with alarming stories about the avian flu – or “bird flu” — and its potential to cause widespread illness. The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have estimated that as much as 30 percent of the world’s workforce could be out sick or caring for the sick if the avian flu turns into a global epidemic. Thus, scientists are saying now is the time for businesses to think about pragmatic and practical preparations.

“We held sessions in August for businesses, but not many folks showed up. I guess it’s just not on their radar screens,” said Richard DiPentima, deputy director of the Manchester Health Department about a public forum held by his agency.

Greg Moore of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said that agency also has been hosting seminars around the state designed to inform people about the avian flu, including upcoming sessions in Manchester, Concord and Berlin.

“The avian flu is serious, but it’s not here right now,” he said as a way of possibly explaining the business community’s muted response for preparations.

The avian influenza virus first appeared among Hong Kong poultry flocks in 1997. Since then, it has claimed over 60 human lives and 150 million birds. It has since spread from Asia to Russia to at least three other European countries — Romania, Turkey and Greece.

While virulent, the bird flu — also known by its serotype H5N1 — is not an especially hardy virus, said DiPentima. “Adequate cooking of food and good hand-washing can do a lot to prevent illness.”

But concern about the virus’s potential to cause illness has arisen because it is a brand new virus and humans have no natural defenses against it.

“The ‘normal’ seasonal flu is somewhat similar to what we’ve seen in previous years. We have some level of immunity,” said DiPentima. “In pandemic strains, like the one that occurred in 1918, the virus is completely new, and we have no immunity. In some cases, the virus can infect the lower respiratory tract to cause a viral pneumonia which can lead to death.”

According to HHS, the avian flu potentially could infect as many as 852,000 people in the state, resulting in as many as 1,000 deaths.

Such a scenario could have a devastating effect on the state’s economy, which is why health officials are “working to mitigate the economic impacts to the state in the event that an avian pandemic were to hit,” said Moore of HHS, adding that a flu pandemic is a “top priority” of the agency, with regularly scheduled task force meetings.

‘Not on our radar screens’

Among the state’s preparations is an Influenza Pandemic Plan. Developed in 1999, it was issued in 2001 and is regularly reviewed and updated, as recently as September.

The state also has an avian flu pandemic drill scheduled for Nov. 17-19 — the first such drill in the nation, according to Moore.

“We will be testing all aspects of a pandemic, including mass vaccinations, hospital surge, isolation and quarantine practices, transportation and infrastructure issues, and law enforcement resources.”

The public will be able to take part in the drill as three sites, yet to be announced, will hold vaccination clinics providing inoculations for the common seasonal flu.

While the state might be at the forefront of pandemic planning, business organizations haven’t heard much from their members.

Stuart Arnett, director of the Division of Economic Development, said that while his department is working closely with HHS to “disseminate information” being developed to New Hampshire’s businesses if and when the time comes, there were no specific outreach programs up and running.

Jane Natches, communications director for the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, said she has not heard of any requests for information about avian flu from chamber members.

“I’ve been asking around, and I haven’t heard a thing,” she said.

She also said she was not aware of any avian flu programs for businesses being developed by the chamber nor had she heard of being contacted by state public health officials about holding events.

At the BIA, “we really have not heard anything from our members. It’s not on our radar screens,” said David Juvet of the Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire.

Nevertheless, public health officials – including Manchester’s DiPentima — said businesses need to start thinking about what to do in the event that 30 percent of the workforce is out sick.

“We need to build redundancy into operations and cross-train in critical functions,” he said.

As much as staff at the New Hampshire Business Review might beg to differ, DiPentima said that life would go on if the newspaper was published late because of workforce shortages. But, he asked, what would happen if 30 percent or more of first-responders — health-care professionals, firefighters and police — were unable to answer an emergency?

He also brings up other scenarios most people don’t consider, such as what if those who participate in the buying, transportation and stocking of food in grocery stores, or those who field telephone calls and other communication systems, guard prisons or deliver fuel were out sick.

“How do we function at the best level we can, when all these are sick or home taking care of sick loved ones?” he asked.

He said hospitals also need to consider alternative treatment facilities and discharge planning.

Andrea Alley, communications director of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, said the organization has not issued any formal preparedness plan for the state’s hospitals, “but we are currently watching the situation very closely. We would follow the state’s flu pandemic plan in the case of that eventuality.”

Business owners and employers might be surprised that the single best advice they can give their employees to keep them healthy is probably the same advice they received as children: wash your hands.

“Hand-washing really is Step 1, and not just for the flu, but for everything,” said DiPentima.

He added that employers also should “take a look at their sick leave practices. We have a society where we try to be heroes and come to work when we really should be home. Just don’t come to work if you’re sick. Employers need to encourage their employees to stay home if they are, in truth, sick. If you have a fever, if you’re coughing and sneezing, stay home.”

Moore of HHS recommended that businesses consider telecommuting options, not just for those who are healthy, but who are home caring for sick family members. “One person can spread the flu to the whole office. That can degrade the overall productivity versus having just one person out sick,” he said.

He also suggested that businesses talk to their janitorial staff. “Make sure they are cleaning work surfaces like desktops and door handles as well as cleaning the bath rooms.”

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