Firm Plans, or Just

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2005-11-07 Email Print this article Print

Avian flu could cripple businesses, but most haven't done much to protect themselves or their employees. Here are four steps technology execs should take now to prepare.


Dr. Roger Baxter, infectious disease specialist for the Northern California branch of Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization based in Oakland, Calif., says the avian flu models have sparked dialogue within his 40-hospital group and with state and county health agencies, but acknowledges his current disaster readiness plan is "just a vague outline."

"You have to ensure that people come to work, and you have to have definitive leadership from government," says Baxter, who notes that it's difficult for Kaiser Permanente and its technology department to form specific continuity plans, systems-based or otherwise, when it lacks marching orders from state and county health officials. "We're waiting for someone to take a leadership role and tell us what they want to do," he says.

In the meantime, Baxter says Kaiser Permanente, which serves more than 3.4 million people, has already stopped writing prescriptions for Tamiflu, the anti-viral drug that alleviates avian flu symptoms. The company is also considering plans to have all flu cases sent to designated hospitals.

Other companies are beginning to consider the worst-case avian flu scenario. The CDC has advised companies to expect 15% to 35% of all employees to become infected in a pandemic. Corporate campuses may be quarantined, keeping employees from the office, manufacturing plant or sales counter.

Sherry Cooper, chief economist for BMO Nesbitt Burns, a Toronto-based investment banking firm, says companies have an obligation to prepare for the worst and revamp their business continuity plans accordingly. Cooper says companies need to plan for having many of their employees work remotely.

"But not every employee can work remotely," she says. "Manufacturing firms need to isolate different groups and shifts as best as possible. Some companies may need to quarantine workers internally, keeping people who aren't infected in different facilities as you rotate out those who get sick."

Charlie Lathram, vice president of security at BellSouth, says he's planning a mock emergency drill based on a flu pandemic scenario. Lathram's 19-person hazardous-materials team completed a mock emergency event for an anthrax outbreak shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. He says that team would be ideal to respond to a pandemic flu outbreak.

"We would have them don their protective gear and enter a contaminated area or a quarantined area to do maintenance on our computers and other critical infrastructure," he says. "In that way it would be similar, but that would also be dependent on a healthy hazmat team."

Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.

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