GSB Vol. 12, No. 2, Pg. 14. Pandemic Preparation in the Workplace.

Authorby Donald W. Benson

Georgia Bar Journal

Volume 12.

GSB Vol. 12, No. 2, Pg. 14.

Pandemic Preparation in the Workplace

GSB JournalVolume 12, No. 2October 2006Pandemic Preparation in the Workplaceby Donald W. BensonHow should employers prepare their workplaces for possible pandemics of avian influenza, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or illness spread by bioterrorism? Is the risk of a pandemic illness significant enough to merit the devotion of time and resources necessary to secure the continuity of business operations? What is the employer's role in promoting quarantine effectiveness, social distancing, or preventative hygiene?

Or, is the near hysteria over the possibility of a pandemic caused by avian influenza or another similarly contagious illness merely the latest version of a doomsday forecast, similar to the prediction that Y2K would shut down global business operations? That predictionspawned an entire industry devoted to business preparations for the millennium, and almost every company of significant size devoted considerable amounts of management and IT time and capital to achieving readiness for Y2K.

Of course, many attorneys, accountants, consultants and vendors profited handsomely from these efforts; but it should be noted that business productivity gains in the early years of this century may be due, in no small part to the updating and planning that occurred in advance of Y2K. Accordingly, it is possible that the current alarmist news coverage focused on the possibility of a pandemic may encourage similarly creative business and legal planning that will not only help to minimize the effects of any such pandemic, but also foster the type of productivity gains that resulted from the attention devoted to the threat of Y2K.

This article will first examine the nature and threat of the pandemic occurrence of a disease such as avian influenza and its possible effects on business operations. It will then discuss pertinent governmental regulations and guidelines that may come into play should a pandemic arise. Finally, the remainder of the article will highlight some of the major legal and logistical issues on which counsel should advise business clients in an effort to ensure that they are properly prepared for a possible pandemic.

Pandemic: A Global Outbreak of Disease

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has set forth three conditions that must exist in order for a global outbreak of a disease to occur: (1) the emergence of a new type of virus for which humans have little or no immunity; (2) the capability of this new virus to infect and cause illness in humans; and (3) the capability of the virus to spread easily and without interruption among humans.(fn1) A pandemicresults when these three factors converge with regard to a disease.

We have experienced three influenza pandemics in the previous century: "Spanish influenza" in 1918, "Asian influenza" in 1957, and "Hong Kong influenza" in 1968.(fn2) The 1918 pandemic killed an estimated forty to fifty million people worldwide.(fn3) Although the 1918 "Spanish influenza" was exceptionally deadly, the two subsequent pandemics also caused significant human deaths, including an estimated two million deaths in 1957 and one million deaths in 1968.(fn4)

Currently, public health officials are alarmed over the pandemic potential of the current strain of avian influenza, H5N1. Although the vast majority of avian influenza viruses do not infect humans, on rare occasions these bird virusescan infect other species, including pigs and humans.(fn5) H5N1 has spread by bird migration and commerce into the domestic and wild bird populations of fifty countries in Asia, parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.(fn6) Transmission from birds to humans has been relatively rare, but 232 confirmed cases have resulted in 132 deaths in a wide geographic area including Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.(fn7)

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new virus subtype emerges that has not previously circulated in humans and "starts spreading as easily as normal influenza - by coughing and sneezing."(fn8) Public health experts are particularly concerned that H5N1 might ultimately mutate into a strain that is contagious among humans because it is an influenza A subtype and has genetic similarities to influenza strains that have spread among humans.(fn9) With such a genetic adaptation, H5N1 would no longer be a bird virus, but a new human influenza virus to which the human immune system would have no preexisting immunity.(fn10) This lack of immune defense makes it likely that people who contract such a type of influenza will experience more serious disease than that caused by normal influenza to which humans have already been exposed.(fn11)

What is the Threat of the Occurrence of a Pandemic and Potential Level of Disruption?

The emergence of a virus that meets the biological characteristics set forth by the CDC seems quite plausible given the rapidity with which viruses develop and change. Moreover, viruses that have these characteristics are assisted in their spread through populations and from one population to the next by the reality of a truly global economy in which people travel far more than they did fifty years ago. Many more American companies now have their own sales, logistics, operations and financial employees who regularly travel to their companies' overseas plants, or to those of their vendors or buyers. Similarly, personnel from these vendors and buyers are making on-site calls to businesses in the United States. The prevalence of these international trips has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to estimate that a global pandemic for a highly contagious airborne disease like avian influenza could reach pandemic distribution in as little as three months.(fn12)

The WHO is currently working under three assumptions with regard to planning for a possible pandemic. The first assumption is that a pandemic would spread to all continents in less than three months.(fn13) The second assumption is that significant portions of the world's population would require medical care, and the third is that medical supplies will be inadequate in all countries due to limited supplies of vaccines and anti-viral drugs.(fn14) Based on the comparatively mild 1957 influenza pandemic, the WHO projects...

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