If H1N1 Strikes, Is Your Business Ready?

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The CDC now reports that H1N1 (still regularly called swine flu) is the most predominant flu virus in circulation. There haven’t been any significant changes in the organism itself as it hit the Southern Hemisphere during their flu season, yet the illness continues to spread without regard to the time of year — unlike the more familiar seasonal flu. To date, 21 states in the U.S. report that the flu is “widespread” according to the CDC, though the majority of patients continue to experience mild illness.
Any reports of flu at this time of year are unusual. Visits to the doctor for flu-like illness are increasing (as they have for the past 5 weeks) all across the nation, and are also higher than what would be expected for this time of year. The good news is that the virus now circulating is similar to the one being used for the vaccine preparation, and is still responsive to antiviral drugs like oseltamivir and zanamivir.
Still, everyone’s gearing up for what they worry might be a bad flu season. This is your chance to figure out what all this means to your business.
As a refresher, go back to the basics (we’ve covered these in an earlier post) and remind your staff to cover coughs and sneezes, wash their hands and wipe down commonly used office devices (phones, keyboards, mice, pens) every day. Keep hand sanitizers on hand in any form you like… small bottles, as clips or pens, or even in handy sprayers. Tissues should be readily available as well. You might also consider making allowances in work schedules for those who make the effort to be vaccinated. Expect H1N1 vaccinations to be available sometime in late October 2009.
There are online resources, like the CDC’s weekly surveillance report FluView that will give you specifics on the H1N1 cases across the U.S. Another is www.flu.gov that’s loaded with news and information about the flu. As you might expect, there’s even an iPhone application that lets you track H1N1 outbreaks.
If you employ those at high risk (pregnant women, those of any age with chronic health conditions, parents of school age kids, late teens and young adults aged 18-24) it’s important for you to plan now for what you’ll do if H1N1 comes calling. You might want to consider encouraging those who work for you to get the H1N1 vaccine when it’s available — making allowances in work schedules for this could be a wise bit of foresight it the expected second wave of illness hits later this year.
In this case, an ounce of prevention is well worth it.
Another option when it comes to preventing H1N1 from carrying off your staff is to limit the number of conferences or large meetings they attend. Think doing business over the phone, or online, rather than face to face.
Perhaps the hardest thing to do, especially if you’re a small, tightly run ship, is to encourage a key worker to stay home when they’re sick. But this is exactly what experts insist will contain the spread of the virus. The very real potential of disruption to your business operations is reason enough to cross-train everyone — so anyone can easily fill in when needed. Parents of school age children who work outside the home are vulnerable to mandatory school closings or a child sick at home with H1N1 — which means you might have to find some very creative ways of getting things done.
Technology today makes telecommuting a viable option for some. Flexible work hours might be another choice that makes sense for your business. Setting these alternatives up on the fly — under pressure — is not a good idea. Investigate the options now to get work done, test them and have them in place for that morning when only a skeleton crew makes it in to the office.
If you have yet to do this, now’s the time to review your businesses sick leave policy, and at least think about how you’ll manage if one (or more) key staff people must be out of the office. A recent cross-country survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found many businesses with sick leave policies that won’t be workable in a severe outbreak. Of course public health officials are encouraging business owners to be as generous with sick leave as possible.
Another issue to consider — how will you sanitize your facility if someone who works there has a confirmed case of H1N1? How will you handle the privacy expectations of the employee vs. the right of other staff who may have been exposed to know? How would you handle restricted service or supply chain disruption if things get really bad? And, if that second wave does hit… what can you do to keep the media-fueled public panic from effecting your bottom line?
The government offers a preparedness guide for small businesses that could well be worth checking out.
And while these steps won’t keep H1N1 from coming, they’ll help you prepare your business for what’s coming.

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