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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

On #H1N1, Obama/State-Local Leaders Should Highlight Model Company Plans To Set “Tone” For Businesses; New Survey Underscores Balance Between Public Concern/Complacency

August 19th, 2009 · 2 Comments

U.S. officials today offered “guidance” to the private sector in preparing for the H1n1 flu this Fall. In Flu.Gov’s new ‘toolkit’ for businesses, there is “Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to the 2009 – 2010 Influenza Season.” The section “Actions Employers Should Take Now” includes these key, yet somewhat tricky, recommendations:

*Allow sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs;
*Develop other flexible leave policies to allow workers to stay home to care for sick family members or for children if schools dismiss students or child care programs close;
*Share your influenza pandemic plan with employees and explain what human resources policies, workplace and leave flexibilities, and pay and benefits will be available to them;

There are no laws or mandates to back this up except in some limited areas (the New York City Council may act to mandate paid sick days in time for the Fall along the lines of laws in San Francisco and Washington D.C.) and getting widespread voluntary private sector compliance is a challenge (ie. unlike schools there is no local managerial authority; it has to be done firm by firm).

Further, while many large corporations have contingency plans already, it will be more difficult for smaller companies and their employees to comply. In the joint interdepartmental press release, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke emphasized the need for  leadership for business and government:

Secretary Locke suggested businesses set the right tone in the workplace. That means implementing common sense measures to reduce the risk of spreading the flu and encouraging workers who are sick to stay home.

“The President has mobilized the federal government to get America prepared,” DOC Secretary Locke said. “But government can’t do it alone. For this effort to be successful, we need the business community to do its part.” Making the right decisions will not only improve public health, it also has the potential to protect economic productivity: Employees who are sick and stay home will not spread the flu in the workplace.

At the news conference, DHS’ Secretary Janet Napolitano added: ”Be responsible and understanding for the absenteeism that needs to occur with this strain of the flu.”

In order to help set that “tone” in businesses around the U.S., I would suggest that national leaders (including President Obama) as well as those in states and localities should begin to do high profile media events highlighting businesses of all sizes that are taking the actions being recommended by the government. That use of the bully pulpit would show how seriously the government views this, help other businesses figure out how to do it and make it seem like the norm not the exception.

I still am unclear whether there will be some need for stronger government action and/or assistance regarding business, employees and H1N1. But in the meantime, showing how some companies are already planning to handle it would seem to be helpful. (n.b. There will be a webcast on Flu.Gov Thursday at 1:00pm (ET) focusing the new federal business and employer guidance.)

Swine flu

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talks to reporters as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano look on during a joint news conference today. (Photo: Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images)

I also wanted to mention a Washington Post/ABC News poll released today. According to a Post story on the survey headlined “Poll: Most Americans Not Concerned About Swine Flu”:

Most Americans are either “not too” or “not at all” worried about the swine flu hitting home and broad majorities have confidence the government and local health providers will be able to effectively deal with an outbreak, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll…

A key component in the federal response is the swine flu vaccine currently in production, and in the poll, 55 percent of Americans say they are apt to get the vaccine for themselves or someone in their household. Stipulating a doctor’s recommendation, that percentage jumps to 65 percent. But the government has to battle some complacency: Only about one in eight Americans is very worried that swine flu will affect his or her family, with more than twice as many “not at all” concerned. Overall, more than six in 10 are not worried.

If “not too” worried means that most Americans are not overly concerned or hysterical but are still beginning to look into contingency planning at home, school and work then that would seem to be a good state of mind going into the Fall. If, however, “not too” worried is a synonym for complacency then that could be a problem. I don’t know how to evaluate the 55/65% who say they will take a vaccination. It seems relatively high considering that H1N1 is currently not really in the news and not viewed as a major threat. That would undoubtedly go higher when/if the flu begins spreading in the Fall.

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Tags: Business Preparedness · Pandemic Flu

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