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Businesses Brace for Swine Flu

Vials of influenza A(H1N1) vaccine are boxed and secured prior to being wrapped and shipped at the Sanofi Pasteur plant in Swiftwater, Pa. The chief executive officer of Sanofi-Aventis says his company has begun U.S. shipments of its swine flu vaccine ahead of schedule.
Vials of influenza A(H1N1) vaccine are boxed and secured prior to being wrapped and shipped at the Sanofi Pasteur plant in Swiftwater, Pa. The chief executive officer of Sanofi-Aventis says his company has begun U.S. shipments of its swine flu vaccine ahead of schedule. (Reuters)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

As they continue to grapple with the economic crisis, Washington-area employers now should prepare for a possible health crisis in coming months from an H1N1 pandemic, federal and local officials warned Tuesday.

In this area, health officials said, reported cases of the virus, also known as swine flu, have remained relatively low, in contrast to such places as Memphis and Austin, where overwhelmed hospitals have been forced to set up tents in parking lots to handle the heavy patient caseload. Still, officials from the federal Department of Health and Human Services as well as the District, Maryland and Virginia warned employers to plan for a disaster with large numbers of their workers out sick and a possible disruption in their operation.

Despite losing revenue and in some cases having cut their workforces during the recession, officials said, employers probably should expect additional strain from spending more on fax machines, printers and high-speed Internet connections so that staff can work from home, and from shifting more duties to employees who are well.

"Your planning assumption should be based on a worse-case scenario and what that means to your business. Frame your universe on who it is you can't do without and how you will function with two-thirds of [the staff] out," Dr. Pierre Vigilance, director of the District's Department of Health, told about 200 employers and business people at a conference sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Vigilance, who along with officials from Maryland and Virginia provided updates on their efforts to combat the virus, added that H1N1 is more debilitating than other flu strains. He said employers should expect sick workers to be out at least a week and for the flu season to last longer. "We're expecting for this period to move us to March or April," he said.

The government will begin distributing about 195 million doses of the flu vaccine next week, initially offering it to high-risk groups such as pregnant women, people between six months and 24 years, health-care workers, child-care workers and people over 24 years with chronic health conditions, federal and local health officials said.

Still, discussion centered on what employers could do to minimize the spread of the virus and to keep their doors open.

If a customer contracts the virus from the business "there's an increased liability," said Elizabeth Lewis, a partner at the law firm Cooley Godward Kronish.

Lewis urged businesses to establish policies requiring sick workers to stay home -- and to require high-risk workers, such as pregnant women, to stay out of the office even if they're not sick. Employers, Lewis said, should offer work-from-home options and "cross-train" employees so that one can fill in for another.

Employers should "have conversations with their employees now on their flexibility," Lewis said. High absenteeism may require employers to "add extra duties and extra hours" to workers who are not sick, she added.

The virus is creating a culture of cleanliness, with worksites stressing handwashing and sanitizing.

Metro has spent $250,000 on supplies for its stations, trains and buses, said Peter LaPorte, director of emergency management for the transit agency. "We've done an aggressive job in getting more cleaning supplies," he said. A few employees worried about getting sick on the job have expressed interest in wearing masks, but Metro frowned on that because of little scientific proof that they work, LaPorte said.

Safeway is stressing handwashing to employees, said Steve Neibergal, president of the store's Eastern division. Customers also are becoming more concerned about their health, and sales of products designed to stem the spread of germs are rising. "What we're seeing is hand sanitizers up, tissues up, disinfectant up," Neibergal said.


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