U.S. companies have been urged to plan for bird flu as a new report issued by the White House predicts that a pandemic could affect up to 40 per cent of the workforce and cause massive disruptions lasting for months.
In the most pessimistic scenario outlined in the 200-plus page document, the virus could kill two million Americans and infect 50 million more, with up to 40 per cent of the workforce off sick or caring for others for two weeks.
But the report warns that disruption will be too widespread for the federal government to be able to offer the kind of aid it does after hurricanes or other natural disasters.
Although it may occur in discrete waves in any one locale, the national impact of a pandemic could last for many months, with "sustained and profound consequences for the operation of critical infrastructure, the mobility of people and freight, and the global economy."
As a result, the report states, "local communities will have to address the medical and nonmedical impacts of the pandemic with available resources."
With more than 85 percent of critical infrastructure owned and operated by the private sector, sustaining their operation under conditions of pandemic influenza will depend largely on each individual organisation's development and implementation of plans for business continuity under conditions of staffing shortages and to protect the health of their workforces
As a result, a recurrent theme of the report is that "the private sector, with targeted and timely guidance from the Federal Government, should develop plans to provide essential services even in the face of sustained and significant absenteeism. Businesses should also integrate their planning into their communities' planning."
"Businesses and corporations, especially those within sectors constituting the Nation's critical infrastructure, should develop continuity of operations plans that provide for workforce health protection and ensure that essential functions and vital services can be performed in the setting of significant absenteeism."
Among the guidance offered to employers, the report recommends that policies be established to prevent influenza spread at the worksite, such as encouraging remote working and implementing mandatory sick-leave for anyone with influenza symptoms.