Major US companies are bracing for a potentially stronger strain of swine flu this year that could threaten the nation's already fragile economic recovery.
Experts say this second, potentially stronger strain of the H1N1 virus could significantly worsen the traditional flu season this year, which already costs US businesses an average $10 billion in lost productivity each year.
So companies from International Business Machines to Caterpillar have developed emergency plans to keep their businesses running in case of a widespread swine flu pandemic.
“My concern would [be] that something bad would have happened, and then you’re left to scramble,” said Home Depot spokesperson Stephen Holmes.
Absenteeism is always the costliest issue associated with the flu, and this will continue to be the case with the H1N1 strain, said Matthew Eggers, manager of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s National Security & Emergency Preparedness Department.
As a result, companies such as Bank of America have put in place teleconferencing and telecommuting strategies to help keep up productivity for those who can’t make it to the office, but aren’t too sick to work.
Aerospace giant Boeing , for example, has examined the supplies it has available for working remotely, and spokesperson Kelly Donaghy said depending on the severity of the pandemic, it will consider ordering laptops for those who are able to do their work from home.
“I think the key is plan for the different scenarios and have multiple options, and be prepared for those multiple options,” Donaghy said.
Though it’s too early to predict how far the flu’s second wave will reach, World Health Organization official Aphaluck Bhatiasevi said in a statement that it could infect 15 to 45 percent of the US population. Therefore, even if it continues to infect people for only two to five days, this could significantly affect the workforce, Eggers said.
What’s more, since H1N1 tends to affect children more than adults, healthy parents could be forced to stay home to take care of their sick children.
“We want businesses to be prepared so they can take a punch and bounce back,” Eggers said.
Another safeguard against the traditional flu is vaccination, which companies such as Home Depot and Boeing have offered their employees free of charge for years. ExxonMobil and Coca-Cola also offer seasonal flu shots, and company spokespersons said they hope to offer H1N1 vaccines to employees when they become available.
While most firms' spokespersons said it's too early to stock up on facemasks, the majority of organizations have already bought mass supplies of hand sanitizer to disinfect employees — and, in the case of retailers like Home Depot , their customers, as well.
“Certainly in retail, you know, good health of your associates is critical, both for their own well being as well as their customers,” Holmes said.
Companies like Procter & Gamble evaluate the advisories put in place by the Centers for Disease Control to determine whether they should restrict travel to hot spots for illnesses. Boeing, for example, restricted travel to Mexico in the spring, when H1N1 fears first surfaced, Donaghy said.
Cutting back on travel was one contributor to the $40 billion in lost productivity suffered by the Asia-Pacific region when SARS hit in 2003, according to a report by the non-profit Council on Foreign Relations.
Along with these restrictions, many precautions companies are taking are an addition to already existing emergency plans, Eggers said.
IBM and Home Depot, for example, worked off the pandemic plans they put in place during the avian flu scare in 2005, while ExxonMobil — which employs about 14,000 people in the Houston area — equipped almost every employee with a laptop after the 2008 hurricane season caused a massive evacuation from the city, spokesperson Cynthia Bergman said.
“I think every time you go through an incident you always come away with lessons learned,” Bergman said.
On top of these tangible precautions, organizations such as BofA and ExxonMobil have set up Intranet sites specifically dedicated to monitoring prevention tips and advisories from credible sources such as the CDC and other credible agencies.
If for nothing else, this information quells fears that are sometimes heightened by media coverage, Donaghy said.
“I think what people were getting from the media [the first time around] was very confusing to them,” she said. “They were very worried, which made them ask questions about the safety of the work environment.”
Still, no amount of preparation companies do is ever enough, said Steve Brozak, president and co-founder of WBB Securities investment research firm, which focuses on health care issues.
Intranet sites are rarely updated as often as they should be, and even when the H1N1 vaccine becomes available, companies will have a difficult time acquiring enough of it — let alone finding a large enough medical staff to administer it, he said.
As for telecommuting, this will open up a number of security concerns for major corporations, especially those such as Bank of America that safeguard highly secretive information.
“You increase the number of people who have remote access to your systems, and you will have an exponential increase in unauthorized access,” he said.