Emergency preparedness managers must know the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic. In their simplest forms, an epidemic is an outbreak of a contagious disease that spreads rapidly within a given area or population. A pandemic has similar traits but goes global, and is often far more disastrous and deadly.
For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009 deemed the H1N1 influenza virus a pandemic because it was spread internationally and claimed several thousand lives. Its deadliness was exacerbated by the fact that it was a new influenza virus to which many people had no preexisting immunity.
When a pandemic hits, it spreads rapidly across an area’s population, disrupting business operations and impacting everything from your workforce to your customers and suppliers. That’s why organizations have a duty of care to their employees to plan for pandemics.
Incorporating Pandemics in Emergency Planning
Although nothing can be done to prevent pandemics, you can mitigate their impact on your organization. Robert Clark, an emergency preparedness expert and the author of Business Continuity and the Pandemic Threat, has studied pandemics for decades.
In a recent AlertFind webinar, he said that pandemics can cause major business interruptions if not highlighted in their emergency preparedness plans. He even suggested incorporating a culture of cleanliness to reduce its spread.
“An organization should consider the health of its employees, as well as its customers and the people who come in contact with their supplies,” Clark said. “They should be encouraging employees and visitors to follow proper etiquette when it comes to sneezing and coughing.”
Clark also said a company’s duty of care also extends to the cleanliness and maintenance of its bathrooms and operational facilities. But the risk doesn’t only lurk in obvious places. Clark’s research revealed that the average office computer keyboard “is infected with 400 times more germs than the average toilet seat.”
“These common areas are particularly dangerous when it comes to spreading pandemics like influenza simply because so many people can touch them. Regular cleaning focused on these infection traps can make a huge difference in keeping your employees healthy,” he added.
Pandemic Phases and Models
WHO published a six-phase approach to pandemic preparedness and response planning. These phases should help emergency preparedness managers identify signs of a pandemic and provide guidance on the implementation of activities.
Phases 1-3 correlate with preparedness, including capacity development and response planning activities. They are generally characterized by animal infections but explore some human infections.
Phases 4-6 detail human-to-human transmissions and widespread human infections. These phases better distinguish between time for preparedness and response; and include the post-peak and post-pandemic periods for recovery activities.
Clark also suggested that companies follow OSHA’s Occupational Risk Pyramid for Pandemic Influenza as a model to determine the likelihood of employees’ exposures. For example, during a pandemic employees with the greatest exposures to the general population would be classified lower than those who come in contact with emergency workers like medical professionals and hospital staff, who should be classified as higher risks.
Statistics and Estimates
In the last century, five of the top six deadliest natural disasters were pandemics. One of the top natural disaster pandemics that continues to this day is AIDS/HIV, which has claimed 35 million lives since the 1980s.
When looking to the future, Clark cites the UK National Risk Register, which estimates that the odds of a major pandemic are between 1-in-20 and 1-in-2. Furthermore, the register projects that the next severe pandemic will occur in the next five years.
With this in mind, Clark said businesses should certainly plan for a pandemic. “Probability-wise, it doesn’t get much closer. If you compare many state or national risk registers, it would be difficult to find one where pandemic was not listed as the number one threat,” he said.
The Department of Health and Human Services maintains that all pandemic plans should remain living documents. They should be updated periodically in the time before, during, and after a pandemic. All plans should be exercised to identify weaknesses and promote effective implementation. For more insight from Bob Clark about how a pandemic can impact your organization, watch the recent webinar, “Pandemics: Preparing For Business’s Next Big Threat.”
AlertFind is an emergency notification systems provider for business continuity professionals, working to protect and connect millions of employees and ensure business continuity in times of crisis from natural disasters to cyber attacks to civil unrest and more.