Preparing for H1N1Published 9:33am Wednesday, September 30, 2009
By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star
As the nation awaits the first batch of H1N1 vaccine to be shipped out this week, more and more are becoming concerned with how to handle what is expected to be a significant threat of the virus this season.
That’s why last week, the Center for Infectious Disease and Policy (CIDRAP) held a conference regarding the virus and the need to protect the workplace.
Among the roster of speakers at “Keeping the World Working During the H1N1 Pandemic: Protecting Employee Health, Critical Operations and Customer Relations” was Niles’ Eileen Shue, vice president of corporate resources at The Sterling Group in Mishawaka Ind.
Shue said The Sterling Group is one of very few companies in the country with a prepared plan for handling the H1N1 virus at their offices, which is what led to her being invited to speak at the conference.
Since H1N1 emerged, health experts have gone from calming panic to addressing a significant level of concern.
“When the novel virus surfaced,” Shue said, “there was fear because most of us weren’t sure what to think. ‘Pandemic’ brings to mind different things for different people; some immediately think the worst, like it’s something in Pandora’s box or a movie about some catastrophic event. The reality is that ‘pandemic’ refers to an outbreak of disease that spreads and affects many people worldwide. The message from health officials continues to be “don’t panic” and take precautions. The best cure for any disease is to prevent it.”
The conference tackled aspects of the flu strain including vaccines and antivirals, travel management and human resources – the last of which Shue’s panel focused on.
The virus took many by surprise when it emerged during this past summer. From elementary schools to colleges and universities, officials there seemed to consider the matter a continuing concern. But did businesses do the same?
“Many if not most businesses seem to me to have responded to this like they did to Y2K,” Shue said. “There was a lot of noise then and nothing happened, or if it did, there were plans in place to deal with them. Employers should all figure out a plan now for how they will respond to employees who become ill or have to stay home to take care of a sick family member and develop a plan for continuing business operations if a larger percentage of their employees are out.”
That idea is what Shue’s panel, discussed at the conference.
“Because we haven’t had widespread outbreaks in our region,” she continued, “there hasn’t been a need to do much outside the normal everyday preventive actions. Businesses should be prepared for potentially increased activity and heightened public health direction so if and when that time comes, they can put their plans into action. Until then, the best plan continues to be preventing illness in the first place.”
It’s still important, Shue said, to heed the advice that has circulated via health experts and professionals since the initial breakout of H1N1, covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, staying home when sick and taking overall care of one’s immune system.
When it comes to the office, the threat is not only internal, with the possibility of one employee coming to work ill and getting coworkers sick. Risks also exist outside the office in meetings with business partners or clients.
“Many businesses are posting signs to remind people to wash their hands and cover coughs, along with providing antibacterial gel (especially in reception areas, conference rooms and other common areas), more tissue and wastebaskets. In addition, they’re limiting travel and face-to-face meetings and holding more conference calls and webinars. Businesses should also be preparing for an outbreak by developing or revising their business continuity plans which should outline who can work from home based on business needs and/or who is cross-trained to cover for absent staff.
“If the answer to either question is ‘no one,’ the question becomes how will we continue operations? In addition to addressing that issue, they should identify the essential operations that must be continued, update contact lists and desk reference manuals make sure everyone is aware of the plan.”
Vaccines are expected later this week and many hospitals and other venues will be administering seasonal flu shots in October.
Seasonal flu shots remain something many citizens make sure to take advantage of each year. Lakeland HealthCare and the Berrien County Hospital are just two area organizations administering shots for the seasonal flu in the coming month.