Simple but Effective Steps for Businesses, Schools and Government Offices to Provide Assurance and Help Prevent the Spread of Disease
Planning for a pandemic is not panicking; it is being reasonable and prudent. Moreover, it provides assurances that diminish the tendency for people to worry. Panic cascades comes from a feeling that things are out of control. Avoiding panic requires faith and confidence that one’s personal safety is reasonably certain. This demands more than empty assurances and being told not to panic. Therefore, concrete steps are important. Knowing that senior staff have carefully considered potential threats and have a staged action plan provides a sense of comfort and confidence that averts panic. Moreover, such confidence is well-placed, as these plans do contribute to personal safety.
Pandemics are not just something from ancient history. In modern times the Spanish flu of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people and in a single year reduced the life expectancy in the United States by twelve years.
A biological safety action plan, when enacted, serves to very effectively diminish the spread of disease. Two of the most dangerous things contributing to the spread of infectious diseases are ignorance and inaction, which can allow a pathogen to establish itself in overwhelming numbers. In any scenario involving the potential for exponential growth, early decisive action is critical. Small efforts at the beginning of an outbreak are far less costly in both human and economic terms than what results from delays and early missteps. Even if the risk of an outbreak is small, the cost of failing to prepare could be unthinkable and even unforgivable. Perhaps by planning for pandemics, we can prevent them happening.
Know Your Enemy
A general plan for biological threats is essential in any organization that values its people (which is hopefully all of them). However, in the face of a specific threat that might necessitate enacting protocols in the plan, it is vitally important to be informed about the characteristics of the disease. Symptoms, modes of transmission and mortality rates should be understood. In addition, Biosafety Levels should be understood, as these can affect the threat level and how situations with potential contagions are handled.
Drills are a proven and effective tool in any incident readiness plan. Most institutions and business conduct periodic fire drills even though the actual risk of a serious fire is vanishingly small for most facilities. Nevertheless, few would question the prudence of taking such simple precautions. These exercises are invaluable in identifying problems in the procedures that lead to remediation and improved safety.
There are many details to the action plan outlined below and a number of these elements such as work-from-home, peer communications, messaging and the like need to be tested in order to discover and address problems.
Drills need not be a full day in duration. For example, to test work-from-home readiness a day can be specified in advance whereby a large population of the employees or students are told to work-from-home until a certain time, perhaps only two or three hours are needed to ensure that the processes and infrastructure are working, or to identify problems.
Drills should be conducted at annually or more often if needed to address specific concerns or to verify fixes.
Special Note for Schools and Universities
With regard to schools, the work-from-home phrase used herein indicates study-from-home. It can be appreciated that there will be special considerations for schools in preparing for study-at-home. For younger children there are working parents to consider, for universities there are dormitories, which themselves are potential concerns in pandemic threat situations. In the case of working parents, if those parents have employers that have similar action plans then coordination is possible.
A flexible and adaptable plan will be essential, and any plan is better than none at all. The exercise of identifying the challenges is certainly not wasted, particularly should a serious communicable disease crisis emerge.
Staged Action Plan
There should be plans for running with reduced staff, work-at-home arrangements, skeleton staff identified, strike teams, skeleton crew, coordinators, seasonal adjustments, known-deadline-related staff/plan adjustments, meeting schedules for updating plans (yearly at least).
Equipment and supplies should be procured and periodically checked/updated/replenished/replaced. These items include protective surgical gloves and masks, possibly light coveralls, disinfectant cleaning supplies, fever monitors, hand-sanitizer.
Alternative communications plans should be established. This includes mobile phone number and personal email exchanges among senior staff and managers as well as managers having lists for their direct reports. General communication outlets including alternate outlets such as social media sites should be established and communicated so that all employees have access to messaging from outside the company should the need arise. Additionally, contact information for the CDC, WHO, local health services and communicative disease specialist services should be established and recorded for ready access.
The action plan should be enacted in stages corresponding to threat levels. The following is an example of how threat levels might be defined and what one can expect at each stage.
Level 1 – Green – Normal operating conditions
There is no imminent threat or need of special precautions.
- Periodic reviews of action plan and readiness
- Periodic testing (equipment take home issues etc.)
- Periodic full/partial drills
- Periodic assessment/replenishment of supplies
Level 2 – Yellow – Elevated concern
There is a specific risk of the spread of infectious disease or a general concern due to the severity of a contagion that may be in the area or could be transported by visitors.
- Everyone review action plan
- Senior staff make detailed review/updates
- All are strongly advised Stay at home if ill
- Sanitizers readily available
- Increased sanitation/hygiene
- Travel scrutinized
- Make specific work-at-home contingency plans
- Contact information and messaging outlets validated
- Systems and infrastructure for work-at-home checked
The action plan should be reviewed by all employees. Senior management and managers, in particular, should review it carefully to identify possible problem areas or items that need to be updated or adjusted.
Employees should be strongly directed to stay home if they have fever or other symptoms. Anyone displaying such symptoms at the office should be immediately sent home.
Hand sanitizers should be readily available throughout the building. Frequent hand-washing should be encouraged. Travel plans should be scrutinized. Visits from other regions or from overseas should be highlighted.
Managers should be making specific work-at-home plans, schedule rotations, plan deliverable and schedule adjustments and contingencies. Managers should ensure that personnel identified in the action plan are available and if not others should be appointed.
Contact information and alternate communication plans should be validated (mobile phone numbers, email addresses and social media or websites should be validated/updated).
Level 3 – Red – Serious concern
There is a specific credible threat of a serious illness being spread locally or possibly being brought into the building.
- Work-at-home enacted
- Any ill personnel must stay home (no exceptions)
- Travel postponed or eliminated
- Active screening for sick at entrances
- Messaging initiated
- Masks provided/encouraged for those that must be in facility
Work-at-home plans should be enacted everywhere possible and practical. All employees should be strictly forbidden from coming to the facility if they are experiencing any symptoms of illness. This includes even senior staff. Travel should be postponed or eliminated in all but the most mission-critical situations.
Security staff wearing gloves and masks should be actively screening each person entering the building for fever using a touch-less temperature scanner. Anyone displaying a fever or obvious illness must be sent home.
Messaging via established social media and corporate sites should be initiated. Employees in the office should be made to feel free to wear masks if they desire (this is common is Asia but there is a social stigma for Europeans and Americans).
Level 4 – White – Extreme threat level
There are numerous cases of confirmed serious communicable disease in the immediate area or building.
- Facilities on skeleton crews
- Masks strongly encouraged for skeleton crew
- All travel cancelled
- Adjust schedules and expectations to reflect productivity losses
- Continuous status updates
Only a skeleton crew should be allowed into the building. Work-at-home plans should be enacted for everyone else. The skeleton crew should seriously consider wearing masks especially if there have been suspected infected personnel in the building. All travel plans should be cancelled.
Continuous updates should be provided via messaging outlets. Managers must adjust deliverables and schedules and prepare contingencies for various threat durations.
Level 5 – Black – Epidemic/Pandemic or contamination conditions.
- Facilities in total shut-down
Facilities are in total shut-down. The building is evacuated. No one is permitted entry until the threat level is reduced. Senior staff should coordinate via alternate communications and provide continuous messaging.