Flu worries create urgency for planning

Federal agencies need to account for uninfected teleworkers, experts warn

Although the avian flu has shown no signs so far of having the ability to be transmitted from one person to another, federal agencies have begun planning in case it does. Health authorities believe that the world is overdue for a flu pandemic that could incapacitate or kill thousands or millions of people. A slight mutation in the virus that causes avian flu could make it contagious among humans. Even if avian flu is not the source, officials say they believe another flu pandemic of some sort is likely to occur.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, agencies have put more urgency into efforts to develop continuity-of-operations plans. But a pandemic adds another wrinkle because most plans don't factor in uninfected people who want to work from home in a self-imposed quarantine or whom authorities might quarantine. A much greater number of people might need to telework for a longer period of time than that for which most agencies are prepared.

Pandemic flu would be far worse than the illnesses people contract during the annual cold and flu season, according to the World Health Organization. That kind of flu causes about 226,000 people to be hospitalized in the United States and causes 36,000 deaths each year.

Unlike the annual influenza variety, a flu pandemic would spread worldwide in a matter of months and could infect more than a quarter of all people worldwide, according to WHO.

The possibility of such an outbreak has accelerated COOP efforts at some agencies, said David Songco, chief information officer at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of 27 institutes that constitute the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

'The organizations had considered it important but not so urgent,' Songco said. 'The pandemic flu threat changed all that. Now it's urgent.' Songco spoke last month at the CIO Forum and Executive IT Summit. The Advisory Council, an IT research firm, produced the conference.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office on pandemic planning analyzed the Defense Department's pandemic preparedness and found it had made some progress but needed to do more. Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman and ranking member of the Government Reform Committee, respectively, released the report in October.

'Because a pandemic could occur at any time, it is critical that we be prepared,' Davis said. 'We need to be able to treat the sick, prevent the spread of the disease and keep the country, including critical government agencies such as the DOD, functioning.'

The GAO reports states that about 40 percent of the U.S. workforce might stay home from work during a flu pandemic because they are ill, caring for ill family members or trying to avoid catching the disease themselves.

Agencies should analyze whether their internal network infrastructure is ready for the demands of 40 percent of their employees working from home, said Don Winstead, special assistant for pandemic planning at the Office of Personnel Management.

'No one knows whether there's going to be enough bandwidth,' said Winstead, who also spoke at the October conference. 'OPM is encouraging agencies to test that proposition by having people work at home on an unannounced basis.'

Tom Lockwood, director of the Homeland Security Department's Office of National Capital Region Coordination, said plans need to cover all of the organizations that might be involved in a response. One entity is going to have to become the incident commander, coordinating the efforts of everyone else, he said. Those are decisions that are best agreed to long before an emergency occurs.

DOD started its planning efforts in September 2004, more than a year before the government released the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, according to the GAO report. But DOD has yet to solve several significant challenges as its planning focus shifts from military personnel to its civilian workforce.

At the time of the GAO review, DOD had not fully defined departmentwide roles and responsibilities. GAO proposed that DOD create and communicate those clearly, including lines of authority, oversight mechanisms and performance measures. GAO also recommended that DOD implement a departmentwide communications strategy to deal with a possible flu pandemic.

Agencies must be prepared to continue delivering services, said Steve Cooper, former chief information officer at DHS and now CIO at the American Red Cross. The Red Cross' normal procedures during a disaster call for establishing service centers near affected areas in which people need services. But normal procedures wouldn't work in a pandemic because people would be afraid to get too close to areas affected by the pandemic.

Agencies that provide citizen services need to factor that into their planning, Cooper said. 'Telework plays a big role for our folks, but not for the folks we deliver services to.'

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