Influenza has done it again! That amazing virus continues to surprise and confound us. While all of our focus was on Southeast Asia and the Middle East, it suddenly rises up from south of the border and now is spreading far and wide. Yesterday the World Health Organization raised the Pandemic Alert level to Five – just 48 hours after we had moved from a Three to a Four. Phase 5 alert means there is sustained human-to-human spread in at least two countries. It also signals that efforts to produce a vaccine will be ramped up.

We have been inundated with many questions over the past 72 hours. My goal is to cover many of them in this blog.

The Four Pillars of a Pandemic Plan

What sets pandemic plans apart from other continuity strategies? These plans are built upon four basic but distinct pillars:

  1. Social Distancing
  2. Education and communication
  3. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  4. Facility Cleaning

When you stop and think about it, these four unpretentious pillars are fundamental at protecting a business. Each one must be strong and well prepared in order to support the organization. Just like the legs of a milk stool, all must be equal or the stool will wobble

What are some options in Social Distancing?

Social distancing is a technique used to minimize close contact among persons in public places, such as work sites and public areas. It involves keeping people three to six feet apart. This can be a challenge in some work environments. Some options to social distance staff include:

  • Advise employees to avoid shaking hands or hugging.
  • Split teams into different work locations. This can help avoid cross-infection and also build some backup and redundancy – in other words, don’t keep all of your eggs in one basket!
  • Stagger shift changes so staff can be more easily separated. This can also minimize contact and congestion in locker rooms, security areas, lobbies, stairs, and elevators.
  • Begin to discourage face-to-face meetings. Whenever possible, use technology solutions to conduct business, including telephones, video conferencing, and the Internet.
  • If face-to-face meetings can’t be avoided, minimize meeting time, choose large conference rooms, and have participants sit at least three feet from each other.
  • Avoid all unnecessary travel. Cancel or postpone nonessential meetings, gatherings, workshops, and training sessions.
  • Contrary to recommendations pertinent to nonpandemic situations, advise your employees to avoid public transportation and drive to work. Or, allow a version of “flex time” that will work for you, with employees work hours shifted earlier or later to avoid rush-hour crowds on public transport. Consider enlarging the parking lot, if necessary.
  • Introduce staggered lunchtimes to minimize numbers of employees in lunchrooms. o Encourage employees to bring lunch and eat at their desks or away from others. Encourage them to avoid eating in the cafeteria, lunchrooms, and crowded restaurants.
  • If tools such as pens are used at a reception area give them away. Once time use only.
  • Advise employees not to congregate in break rooms or smoke-break areas where people normally socialize. If they do, advise them to keep three to six feet from their colleagues.
  • Close company gyms, childcare centers, and recreation areas.
  • In areas where workstations may be shared, such as call centers provide each worker with his own keyboard and headset or phone. Remind employees not to share their equipment.

When do I begin social distancing?

What triggers would call for social distancing at work? The first cases of pandemic influenza in your area would probably prompt more formal social distancing procedures, but you may want to initiate some practices early on to allow people to grow accustomed to a different way of working. It is likely that some training will be required so that staff may more fully understand how social distancing works. Be sure to include this information in your pandemic staff education.

Although social distancing makes sense, is strongly encouraged by CDC and WHO, and is apt to conform to the desire of employees anyway, it must be recognized that there is little scientific evidence supporting the adequacy of a three foot or six foot separation – or, indeed, of any other specific distance.

How does one social distance in a manufacturing environment or food processing line? Or what about a retail store? That becomes much more difficult and that is where the introduction of personal protective equipment may make the difference between being open or closed.

Next…..Education and Communication