Avian influenza: Real threat or Chicken Little?

Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2005

As if dealing with security threats, spiraling utility and health insurance costs, pension problems and the headaches of meeting a budget and payroll isn’t enough, Maryland business officials are now being asked by the federal government to confront another matter — the possibility of an avian flu pandemic.

The businesses are faced with a question: Is an outbreak of bird flu a threat that could sideline a significant portion of their workforce for extended periods, wreaking havoc to operations — or is it primarily for the birds and those who handle birds?

Many federal government officials believe the former. And a recent survey by Washington, D.C., think tank Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and the Washington nonprofit ERISA Industry Committee found that most business officials view a potential influenza pandemic — a global outbreak when a new flu virus emerges for which there is little immunity among humans — as a threat, but they aren’t sure how to prepare for the worst.

Most Maryland business officials contacted said their companies didn’t have a specific plan to deal with a pandemic if it occurred, but they were including it in their general emergency preparedness plans.

‘‘We have the ability to move staff around and can operate through drive-throughs, if we have to,” said Lloyd B. Harrison III, president and CEO of Mercantile Southern Maryland Bank, which has branches in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties.

The bank has dealt with disasters such as the La Plata tornado a few years ago and prepared for the Y2K bug, he said.

‘‘We know how to function with 20 percent of our workforce out,” Harrison said.

Pepco Holdings, which provides power for thousands of businesses and residents in Maryland, could shift employees around and locate additional help as it does during situations such as power outages and union walkouts, said spokesman Robert Dobkin. The Washington, D.C., company is even conducting a pandemic drill next month to test its response in such a scenario, he said.

‘‘We take this threat very seriously,” Dobkin said.

Likewise for Rockville defense and aerospace company BAE Systems North America, said Robert Hastings, a company spokesman. BAE employs about 1,700 in Montgomery, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s and Anne Arundel counties.

The company has a general business continuity plan on what to do in the event of emergencies such as disasters, power outages and other situations that would cover the bird flu scenario, he said.

‘‘We will certainly take a look at any suggestions by the government on what to do and make sure we are covered,” Hastings said.

Michael Leavitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told state and local public-health officials in a recent meeting that 90 million Americans could get sick and 209,000 to 1.9 million could die in an avian flu pandemic, many more than the roughly 36,000 who die each year from influenza. A ‘‘medium-level” pandemic could cause 10,000 deaths and more than 1 million sick people in Maryland alone, according to state health officials.

But Leavitt also acknowledged that there is ‘‘a better than 50 percent chance” that there will be no pandemic, while others said the probability of a pandemic occurring is closer to zero.

Leavitt urged officials, including those from businesses, to prepare, but stopped short in the meeting of offering any specific recommendations. However, later last week his office released a checklist on how exactly companies should prepare for a pandemic.

If avian influenza turns into a pandemic, the costs to businesses would be enormous, according to the World Bank Group. The Washington organization estimates that losses to the U.S. economy in production and related costs would total from $100 billion to $200 billion. Estimates on the impact to the global economy are much higher, at some $800 billion.

The flu strain in question — the H5N1 avian influenza virus — has jumped from birds to humans since first discovered in 1997, but primarily among people who directly handle birds. Some 69 cases in Asia have been fatal.

‘Chicken Little’ warnings?

Such warnings likely are little more than ‘‘Chicken Little” statements that can lead companies to spend unnecessarily on preparations, said Michael Fumento, a senior fellow who studies health and other issues for the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank.

If past situations, such as the dire warnings of 1 million or more Americans dying from swine flu in the 1970s — when only one American ended up dying of it — and the more recent SARS scare, which didn’t kill a single American, are any indication, the lesson is that ‘‘anything you panic over enough doesn’t come to pass,” Fumento said. ‘‘And the things you don’t pay attention to can blindside you.”

It’s understandable that public health officials would try to cover their bases in the bird flu situation, he said. ‘‘If SARS had been understated by public health officials and then killed a bunch of people, they would all be looking for other jobs,” Fumento said. Overstating the problem also helps enhance officials’ positions in government and increase budgets, he said.

The idea is not to cause a panic but to make sure some preparations are made in case a pandemic does occur, said Michael Earls, a spokesman for Trust for America’s Health, a Washington organization that has lobbied federal officials to increase funding for pandemic influenza preparedness and other issues.

Last month, the Bush administration asked Congress for $7.1 billion in emergency spending to improve vaccine production systems related to the strain. Among the biotechnology companies that have received government contracts to research and work on a vaccine for this flu strain is MedImmune Inc. of Gaithersburg, which is working with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

In the 20th century, there were three flu pandemics: The one in 1918 killed about 500,000 in the United States and 50 million worldwide; one in 1957 resulted in some 70,000 U.S. deaths and 2 million worldwide; and the 1968 pandemic caused about 34,000 U.S. deaths and 700,000 worldwide, according to federal health officials.

‘‘No one knows when a pandemic situation will evolve,” Earls said. ‘‘But we do know that three or four times a century, there is a new strain of influenza that we don’t have the vaccinations for.”

What companies can do

In the business survey released in early December by the Deloitte think tank and ERISA committee, 66 percent of respondents said their company had not adequately planned for a pandemic flu outbreak, while 14 percent said they had. Some 39 percent said there wasn’t much a company could do to prepare itself, while 41 percent disagreed and 20 percent were undecided.

Some 40 percent said there was a high probability that a pandemic would hurt their business, while 17 percent said it would not and 43 percent were undecided.

As for how to cope with a large segment of the workforce out sick for weeks, 60 percent said telecommuting would be effective. Some 63 percent of officials were undecided on whether they would waive sick leave restrictions to encourage sick employees to stay at home, while 27 percent said they would waive the restrictions and 10 percent indicated they would not.

The latter finding really concerns Earls. ‘‘A lot of employees, particularly those who work on an hourly basis, are concerned about lost wages if they don’t show up for work,” he said. ‘‘Companies need to address that and create situations in which employees who are really sick stay home and don’t infect other employees.”

There is no real silver bullet in dealing with this matter, said Doug Taylor, a principal of the Deloitte organization. ‘‘The important thing is the need to understand what the many risks and issues might be,” he said.

What companies actually can do depends on their industries, Taylor said.

Some might have to expand telecommuting and other employee policies, while others work more on ensuring the global supply chains are safe, he said.

Businesses should form some kind of committee to examine its policies on sick leave, telecommuting and other measures, as well as establish evacuation and vaccination plans, said Joan Pfinsgraff, director of health intelligence for iJet Intelligent Risk Systems. The Annapolis provider of risk management technology and crisis response services has advised companies in a wide range of industries — from energy to travel — for more than a year on how to prepare for an avian flu pandemic.

One important part of such a contingency plan that all companies can include is making it easy for employees to work from home, Pfinsgraff said.

Telecommuting is built into the corporate environment at Social & Scientific Systems, said June Mickens, director of organizational communication. The Silver Spring company supports AIDS clinical trials programs, manages conferences and provides statistical health care programming, among other services.

‘‘It’s very easy for most employees to work from a remote location,” Mickens said.

Cross-training employees so there are workers who can perform tasks that sick colleagues normally do is also advisable, Pfinsgraff said.

Then, there is much business officials can do to make sure germs are not easily spread in the workplace, such as providing adequate spacing between employees, disinfecting shared keyboards and phones, and making sure kitchen areas, door handles and other surfaces that are touched by many people are cleaned regularly, Pfinsgraff said. ‘‘The idea is to make the workplace as safe as possible,” she said.

At BAE’s larger sites, the company brings on nurses to give employees flu shots, Hastings said. ‘‘We always encourage our employees to get flu shots,” he said.

Calling on temporary agencies to fill in for many jobs could be a part of the plan, but provisions should be developed to ensure that permanent workers aren’t replaced, Pfinsgraff said.

Finding good workers to do critical jobs, especially highly skilled ones, will be difficult if a pandemic occurs, said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and expert on international economic policy.

‘‘I don’t know if planning for an influenza pandemic goes much beyond creating a depth chart,” Morici said. ‘‘Most companies already have backup locations to do work and backup servers.”

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.