Bird Flu Alarm

2006-05-01-Few US companies are prepared for bird flu outbreak

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-05-01-Few US companies are prepared for bird flu outbreak

In Asia, where the bird flu threat is real and people have more to fear than in the USA, companies have taken to putting out bowls of bleach, ammonia or chlorine to make the office smell clean and put employees at ease.

Such measures seem borderline comical to U.S. companies where high-level teams have started to brainstorm about what they would do if bird flu mutates into a global nightmare and begins to spread from person to person. The problem is, if a pandemic breaks out, the majority of solutions U.S. companies have come up with will seem almost as cosmetic as the aromatherapy in Bangkok.

Just 15% of large U.S. companies have any bird-flu plan, according to a survey in March by human resources consultant Watson Wyatt Worldwide. That's starting to change:

? Corning started its corporate pandemic preparedness team in mid-2005.

? Best Buy has a bird flu team under orders to report to company leadership by October.

? Mutual of Omaha's plan includes flexible hours to reduce building population. It just launched Germ Buster, CEO Dan Neary says, an employee education campaign focused on hygiene.

One of the more extreme examples is biotechnology company Biogen Idec, which says it formed a bird-flu team in September that meets every two weeks. Recommendations include a "3-foot rule" that prohibits handshaking, head-count restrictions on elevators, stations with alcohol-based hand-cleaning gel, and more frequent cleaning of bathrooms.

"Obviously, we view this as a work in progress," says Jose Juves, one of 11 on the Biogen avian-flu steering committee.

The real issue is absenteeism, which the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts could climb above 40% and last for weeks. Boeing is trying to determine if it can operate with 30% of its 160,000 employees out.

"We usually don't share specifics, because it's a security issue," says Boeing spokeswoman Kelly Donaghy. "Can you plan for everything? Absolutely not. We're going to be prepared the best we can. Shame on us if we don't at least think about it ahead of time."

Emcor Group, a commercial-building management company, feels secure in that only 100 of its 27,000 employees work at corporate headquarters in Norwalk, Conn. Likewise, Xerox has only 350 of its 30,000 U.S. employees working at Stamford, Conn., headquarters, and even the 8,000 employees concentrated in Rochester, N.Y., are scattered among several buildings. Telecommuting is an option, says Patricia Calkins, Xerox vice president of environment, health and safety. But she did not readily know what percentage of employees have company-issued laptops with secure IDs that would let them remotely access the Xerox system.

More than 200 companies paid $1,800 each in registration fees to send a representative to a two-day conference on business planning for bird flu in December sponsored by the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Those representatives come back reciting the wonders of sterilized doorknobs, brown-bag lunches, windows open to the fresh air, larger meeting rooms and an employee population educated enough to refuse to shake hands or crowd onto elevators. They also speak of telecommuting, videoconferencing, flexible hours and relying on e-mail and BlackBerrys for conversations across the room, all examples of what is known as "social distancing" among the growing ranks versed in flu-speak.

Few absolute solutions

But when pressed, companies say there is little they will be able to do if H5N1 avian flu morphs into a highly contagious and deadly virus like the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. It killed about 50 million people, more than 500,000 in the USA. But this time, the flu would leap across oceans in hours to be transmitted by people who won't feel symptoms for up to four days.

The WHO calls this worst-case scenario Phase 6. Consumers and employees alike would hunker down at home, costing the global economy $1 trillion, the World Bank estimates. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt says 92 million Americans could get sick.

The good news is that Phase 6 is far from certain. So far, there have been 205 confirmed cases of bird flu in humans who contracted the flu because they lived among and came in contact with diseased birds, mostly in Asia. The latest came Thursday when it spread to an 8-year-old girl in China. But if the virus one day begins to spread from human to human and the mortality rate is anywhere near 50%, it's easy to imagine unprecedented consumer fear and employees who value their lives more than their jobs. That could cripple the global economy and make corporate doorknob cleaning and catchphrases such as social distancing seem absurdly shallow.

Bird flu might never morph into human-to-human transmission, or if it does, it could be a less deadly strain that can be controlled like the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In that case, articles such as this one were destined to be thrown onto the bonfire of whipped-up scares. Remember Y2K hysteria? Trade association websites are rife with warnings about how the media can be expected to overreact if there is a pandemic, which could lead to irrational behavior.

"Most clients we're working with are still relatively confident that life will go on," says Bob Wesselkamper, practice director of international consulting for Watson Wyatt.

Planning for the worst

But disaster planning by definition requires planning for the worst. Consultants that are positioning themselves for bird flu mania, including Deloitte & Touche and Mercer Human Resource, advise companies to use their imaginations. It's easy to imagine corporate buildings as ghost towns; it's just not easy to imagine how to avoid it. Would a pool of retirees be of any help when older people would be the most vulnerable to fatalities? There isn't much a company can do to prepare, says Fred Crosetto, CEO of Ammex, maker of the N95 face masks that protect people from the spread of the virus.

Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits CEO Ken Keymer says a 1918-like pandemic is highly unlikely, and his company is focused more on its contingency plans for Phases 1 to 5. But what if the worst becomes reality? Keymer pauses on the phone. "I'm not even sure. That scenario would shut down all commerce," he says. He starts to envision a business opportunity for home food delivery as people cocoon. But he all but dismisses it as too labor-intensive and impossible if Popeyes employees are home sick, home because they are afraid to get sick or home with their children because schools are shut down. Some employees would die. Others would be devastated with grief.

Sales of the N95 mask made by Ammex are up 500% in a year to 5 million a month, and the company will soon double its capacity. Ammex employees are among the best-informed about bird flu. Even so, Crosetto says, his company could suffer 40% absenteeism. It would be the same for most companies and would cripple just-in-time supply chains, causing shortages, and could lead to Hurricane Katrina-like panic and looting.

Some companies can likely operate with nearly half their employees gone. Most could operate for a short time by doing the 20% most-critical activities, says Robert Dyson, a business continuity specialist at management consulting firm Accenture. But it can't be pulled off without planning, he says.

Even those that plan must worry about their suppliers. "Our business is not an isolated entity," says Biogen's Juves. "Involving people from outside the company will be essential if avian flu risk escalates."

Emcor manages 1 billion square feet of office and industrial space for clients including British Airways, JPMorgan Chase and the U.S. State Department. Most companies are thinking about how to alleviate fears enough to get employees to come to work. But Emcor CEO Frank MacInnis says that in a worst-case scenario, companies will be trying to keep non-critical employees out of buildings so that essential workers can work safely and spread out one or two to a floor. Even then, ventilation systems will need to be adjusted to bring in outside air through ultraviolet filtration, MacInnis says.

Long absences would hurt

Most companies could survive absenteeism if it doesn't last long. But it could drag on. Xerox says it has been advised by government officials to plan for 30% to 50% absenteeism for up to six weeks. "If governments tell us to shut down, we'll do that," Calkins says.

The pandemic could even last in waves up to 18 months as it comes to a city, leaves for a while, then returns. Hit first and hard would be airlines, despite assurances by the Air Transport Association that fliers could be safer on a plane than in an enclosed room because of better air circulation and filtration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon have quarantine rooms set up at 25 airports staffed by 100 employees.

Next will be shopping malls, movie theaters, sports arenas, casinos, restaurants and labor-intensive industries, which might explain why AMC and Regal theaters, shopping mall operator Macerich, turkey processor Hormel Foods and Air Japan were among the companies that declined comment.

"At this time, we won't be sharing any details of our plans," says Wal-Mart's Sharon Weber. "Needless to say, whatever happens, the safety and well-being of our customers and associates will be at the top of our priority list."

Popeyes has more reason than most to stay silent, which is why CEO Keymer says it's better to talk. Chicken sales have plummeted in Asia and dropped off in Europe even though the flu can't be spread through cooked poultry. The lesson learned is to aggressively educate consumers and employees to ease fears, Keymer says.

Another lesson is to sell something other than chicken. Popeyes won't be introducing hamburgers or lasagna, Keymer says, but it will promote the seafood it already has on the menu if the public avoids anything with feathers.

MacInnis, 58, says he's old enough to remember when swimming pools were closed down during the polio scare. Few companies have come to grips with the possibilities of avian flu, he says.

The starting gun will be with the first person-to-person fatality followed by wall-to-wall news reports and Google map mash-ups tracking the flu's spread from ZIP code to ZIP code. Or sooner.

"Just imagine the situation that is going to break loose when the first duck, swan or fowl is found floating in some Midwest lake," Crosetto says. "If it makes the jump to human-to-human, then it is going to get crazy."

Understanding Avian Influenza