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Businesses Ready if Flu Spreads

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

At Booz Allen Hamilton headquarters in McLean, an emergency operations center has been opened with large monitors hanging on the wall tracking the progress of swine flu.

Signs have gone up in restrooms at Marriott International in Bethesda with proper hand-washing guidelines: water, soap and rub for 20 seconds. Pepco officials are making sure employees have proper computer access to work from home. Office building landlords are more vigorously scrubbing frequently touched surfaces such as elevator buttons.

And Food Lion has informed vendors that some delivery drivers might be asked to not leave their trucks and come in contact with the supermarket chain's employees. "This is a precautionary step in case some drivers have traveled through areas with high rates of infection," said Christy Phillips-Brown, a Food Lion spokeswoman.

Across the country, businesses took steps last week to prepare for a flu pandemic that public health officials say may be imminent. The corporate lingo being tossed around on conference calls and best-practices tip sheets: preserve continuity of operations and prepare social distancing policies. Translation: Be ready for employees to be sick or unable to get to their desks because they need to care for their children.

"The big idea is if your people can't be at the workplace, how would your business continue?" said Jim Dinegar, the president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which held a conference call on pandemic planning tips last week that was heard by more than 300 business people.

By all accounts, the planning is calm. In many cases, the procedures being carried out weren't devised on the fly but were set several years ago, either after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the height of the bird flu scare in 2005. Some companies, such as Booz Allen, have opened emergency operations centers and activated response teams. Others haven't gone that far but are prepared to if the situation worsens.

Food Lion and Booz Allen are restricting some travel. If Booz employees must go to an affected area, they will be asked to stay away from the office for a while after their return. Almost all companies with pandemic flu plans are redoubling efforts to make sure employees can access sensitive material from home and meet via video conferencing. Marriott officials said employees have been trained to learn co-workers' duties, should some employees be unable to work.

At many firms, the most visible preparations employees have seen -- so far -- are signs like the ones hanging in the bathrooms at Marriott headquarters. Companies are handing out bottles of hand sanitizer. Booz Allen has stockpiled 10,000 bottles.

"As we communicate with our staff, we need to not lose sight that we should all be taking this seriously but not panicking," said Ray Thomas, the Booz Allen executive heading up the company's pandemic response efforts. "We need to strike a balance."

Business leaders are imploring enterprises that haven't made plans to do so immediately. The suggestions for companies and other organizations include creating internal task forces "to stay current on the latest news and issues concerning the virus and to monitor the organization's preparations," according to the document. "This task force might include personnel from human resources, the executive office, finance and operations."

The Board of Trade is also recommending that businesses "assess the impact that disruption would have on staff, clients, suppliers, contractors, vendors, service providers and other dependencies up and down the line."

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