Avian flu prep takes flight slowly

Agencies working on COOP plans to ensure government stays open

A central part of planning is making sure agencies ... identify essential employees, those who can work at home, and those who do not need to work [during the emergency].'

'Michael Chertoff, DHS secretary

James Tourtellotte

Federal IT professionals are modifying their agencies' continuity of operations plans to prepare for a possible avian flu pandemic, but progress appears halting.

The prospect of a mass disease outbreak puts a new spin on COOP plans generally prepared for terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Federal IT leaders are aware of the need to prepare for a pandemic but, according to specialists, haven't grasped the scale and subtleties of the problem.

Preparations for an avian flu pandemic have accelerated recently, illustrated by reports that the White House has developed a broad plan for government response to an outbreak. The departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security have funded vaccine and medicine production, issued millions of dollars in grants to state public health authorities and conducted briefings nationwide to spur preparedness. Plans now are filtering down to IT leaders.

Officials face the conflicting needs to avoid alarmism, on the one hand, yet gird not just for a brief operations disruption but possibly a long-term siege.

Homeland Security Department secretary Michael Chertoff said last week at a conference on medical emergency preparedness held by U.S. News and World Report that 'a central part of planning is making sure agencies have reviewed their COOP plans to identify essential employees, those who can work at home, and those who do not need to work [during the emergency].'

He added that agencies should evaluate options such as telecommuting to provide continuity.

HHS' Pandemic Influenza Plan speaks directly to the issue, stating that each agency component must prepare and update an operational plan for use during a pandemic.

'These individual plans will also include ... strategies for ensuring that critical everyday functions of each operating division are identified and maintained in the presence of the expected decreased staffing levels of a pandemic event,' according to the HHS document.

While policies on COOP planning for a widespread illness outbreak appear firm in some cases, implementation could lag, according to some specialists.

Jim Hiles, contracts director at the COOP consulting firm Morgan Franklin Corp. of Herndon, Va., said CIOs are aware of the problem but in many cases are still studying their response.

He described agencies' preparedness levels for a pandemic as 'all over the map.'
Hiles said that in a pandemic situation, workers likely would need to 'shelter in place,' avoiding leaving their homes or even the workplace to limit contagion.

He noted that executives might have to plan for employees to access agency systems via virtual private networks to allow them to work from home.

'A chronic event'

Barry Chaikin, associate chief medical officer of BearingPoint LLC of McLean, Va., and a public health physician, pointed out that pandemic planning will have to differ from traditional disaster planning because of the varying timing of the disaster's impact.

'Most of the COOP or disaster planning is based on assumption that it will be an acute event,' Chaikin said. 'It's not based on the idea of chronic event.'

A pandemic could hit a city over a period of four to six weeks, Chaikin said, relent for a while, and then resume.

'I can tell you that there has been a lot of mention of [medicines like] Tamiflu and vaccines, but not a lot of mention of telecommuting and backup processes to make sure people are available,' Chaikin said. 'I do not believe people have done as much as possibly could be done in this area.'


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