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Many Companies Taking Action to Quell Swine Flu Fears

Employers that established preparedness plans during the avian flu crisis several years ago are seeing their efforts pay off.

April 29, 2009
Companies are taking precautions to limit the spread of swine flu—and panic among their workforces—by restricting employee travel, dusting off pandemic preparedness plans and providing e-mails, Web sites and phone calls with information provided by public health officials.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first U.S. death from the flu in Texas and identified 91 cases of swine flu in the United States as of Wednesday, April 29. More than 150 people have died from the flu in Mexico.

Employers that established preparedness plans during the avian flu crisis several years ago are seeing their efforts pay off. Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar, based in Peoria, Illinois, is using its avian flu pandemic plan to guide the company’s actions at each facility worldwide, said Michael Taylor, the company’s medical director for health promotion.

The company has partnered with International SOS, a medical security company, to identify and communicate health information to traveling employees. The company has halted travel to Mexico unless extremely urgent and has sent medical kits to employees who are on extended business travel or are in Mexico.

There is no vaccine for swine flu, which combines strains from human, avian and swine viruses, but Caterpillar says the company’s travel kits include antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu and Relenza. If taken within 24 hours of symptoms, the drugs can reduce the intensity of the flu.

“We spent a tremendous amount of effort getting the pandemic project completed two years ago,” Taylor said.

EMC, a technology company near Boston, said it also has a preparedness plan that details how the company will operate if the outbreak spreads. While the company has not instituted a travel ban, its employees in Mexico are using flexible work locations, a spokeswoman said.

SC Johnson, the Racine, Wisconsin-based cleaning products manufacturer, began implementing portions of its pandemic preparedness plan when health officials declared an emergency Sunday, April 26. The company has limited travel to Mexico, sent information to employees on ways to stay healthy—such as covering one’s mouth when sneezing and washing hands—and updated employees with information from health officials. Its Mexico office is following a more detailed plan, a spokeswoman said.

Companies without pandemic plans are improvising based on their circumstances.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has sent out e-mails and automated phone messages with health information to its employees after the only case of swine flu in Ohio was identified at a public school in nearby Elyria. Officials closed the school, Ely Elementary, for the remainder of the week.

“We’re providing information without attempting to induce panic,” said Edwin Skinner, executive director of employee benefits and risk management at Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

Law firm Bryan Cave is posting health information on its company Web site but has not sent e-mails to its 2,300 employees for fear of causing a panic.

Interpublic Group, a marketing and advertising firm in New York with 43,000 employees in more than 100 countries, has restricted travel to Mexico and advised employees in affected areas to work from home.

Rooms to Go, a Tampa, Florida-based furniture chain, is working with its pharmacy benefit manager to get access to generic forms of the antiviral medication for its employees.

“We are going to see if we can get the medication at a low cost so that employees don’t have a high co-pay and thus avoid taking the medication,” said Linda Garcia, the company’s vice president of HR.

The company is also allowing employees who are sick to take time off without having to use sick days.

Companies in the U.S. that don’t have unions will face fewer obstacles if they want to quickly implement pandemic plans, said Don Dowling, an international employment attorney with White & Case in New York. Health officials have categorized swine flu as an outbreak, which is more limited in its scope.

Pandemic preparedness experts say companies should identify company leaders who are responsible for communicating with employees and other contacts, such as health and legal services, and maintain an updated and accurate contact list. In addition to business continuity plans, Aon Consulting suggests employers should establish crisis communication plans and provide a central resource responsible for answering questions and collecting site-specific information.

Dowling says formal policies allow employers to discipline employees who do not comply with company procedures, such as travel restrictions or reporting the illness of family members.

“Now that this has happened, maybe companies are going to see the importance of having a global pandemic policy,” Dowling said.

—Jeremy Smerd and Jessica Marquez

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