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In the Workplace, Awaiting Guidance on How to Counter Flu

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

As recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prompt more schools to close for extended periods because of the swine flu outbreak, businesses and other organizations are getting a much less clear message from public health officials.

CDC spokesman David Daigle said yesterday that federal guidance for offices and factories is "in the works," but he could not say when it might be ready. "We hope the organizations have pandemic influenza plans," he added.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for national security and emergency preparedness, Ann M. Beauchesne, said corporate America is "not anywhere near" taking a stance as aggressive as ones taken by schools.

"Kids are little germ factories. It's different in offices with grown-ups," she said yesterday.

As the CDC continued working on its recommendations, President Obama used his weekly radio address to reassure the public that his administration is squarely confronting the outbreak. He underscored that 50 million courses of anti-flu treatment were stockpiled in anticipation of any outbreak -- preparations he credited the Bush administration for helping put in place.

Obama also spoke yesterday with Mexican President Felipe Calderón for about 20 minutes to discuss what each country is doing.

The administration plans to continue its public relations campaign today by sending three senior officials -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and acting CDC Director Richard E. Besser -- to all five major Sunday morning talk shows.

Beauchesne said the administration's responsiveness "has been terrific," with 100-person conference calls scheduled twice a week bringing together business representatives, the CDC and the Homeland Security Department.

"Because all the questions are being answered, there is really no anxiety," she said yesterday.

The CDC said Friday that schools "should consider" sending students home if campuses have one or more cases of the new strain of influenza. The shutdown should last "up to 14 days," since children are contagious longer than adults. As of yesterday, at least 430 schools had temporarily closed.

A survey Friday of about 350 companies found that 54 percent have pandemic plans and 38 percent do not. About 18 percent said they are "extremely prepared," 72 percent "somewhat prepared" and 11 percent "not prepared."

About 80 percent of companies have communicated to employees their willingness to act. About 55 percent have restricted nonessential travel. Nine percent were screening employees for illness, and 3 percent were distributing antiviral drugs.

The survey was done by International SOS, a privately held French company that provides medical advice, pandemic planning and emergency evacuation services for 3,800 corporations and organizations around the world.

"There is clearly a range of views," said Timothy Daniel, vice president of International SOS's American operations, headquartered in Philadelphia. "They go from the very, very aggressive to saying, 'We're going to let the public health authorities manage this and not try to second-guess.' "

Among the aggressive policies is a voluntary four-day home quarantine for recent travelers to Mexico. Daniel estimated about 20 percent of his company's clients are doing that.

Ninety percent of the more than 650 confirmed cases of swine-origin influenza A (H1N1) reported as of yesterday had been in the United States or Mexico.

The CDC reported 160 confirmed U.S. cases in 21 states, and Mexico's health secretary reported 473 cases in his country.

There have been 19 deaths in Mexico and one in the United States.

Among the big issues that public health authorities everywhere are debating is whether to invoke the most drastic steps included in many pandemic plans.

"What we do should be in proportion to the severity of the disease," said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

He said he thinks the disease, at least as observed so far, may not be severe enough to justify school closings.

"We have to use what we've learned this week and hit the pause button now," he said yesterday.

Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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