Pandemic Planning: Different Types of Businesses Need Different Types of Plans

Pandemics are fairly rare, so organizations may not give them as much attention as other kinds of potential business interruptions. That means that pandemics such as COVID-19 (Coronavirus) can catch them unprepared. Of course, pandemic planning is highly dependent on the type of organization that is involved. This makes appropriate policies and procedures very different for different organizations.

Close contact (within 6 feet) between individuals is the number one factor in the spread of pandemic viruses. Any business environment that brings people into close contact are the most susceptible to the flu. For example, essential job types such as health care workers and first responders are obviously at very high risk since they are dealing directly with affected persons in many instances. Other businesses that are essential for day to day living such as banks, grocery stores and other retail organizations also pose a high risk of infection to customers and employees. After all, people in these businesses pass closely by one another, and what is worse, must stand in line to pay for their purchases or to do their banking business. Employees such as tellers or check out/counter workers have it worse since they must come in close contact with a large number of different people during the day.

Protecting yourself and your staff is most problematic for such organizations and workers. This is largely because of the manner in which flu viruses are transmitted. The number one vector is droplets from coughs or sneezes. These are introduced into the environment by people that don’t or can’t cover their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze. If these droplets are inhaled or get in your eyes you may become infected. More insidiously, coughs or sneezes can also produce micro-droplets or aerosols. These can be so small that they are largely unaffected by gravity and may waft about the environment for some distance, and can even be small enough to penetrate dust masks and tissues. These are very hard to protect against, requiring high efficiency respirators/masks and face shields or goggles. In addition, infection may also be possible from touching infected surfaces and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

There are also many non-essential organizations or businesses that pose a high to medium risk of infection by pandemic viruses. These include concert venues, airlines, conventions, casinos, cruise ships, churches, and other venues where people are in close contact. There is an answer for these organizations, as unsavory as it is: simply cancel these types of gatherings. Unfortunately, the economic consequences of canceling such things can be very high (as can be seen in the recent downturns of the stock market). On the bright side, pandemics are usually of fairly short duration. This allows most businesses and organizations to recover once the threat has passed.

In contrast to these types of organizations are those that have little or no interaction with the public or suppliers. For example, offices and organizations that provide services over the internet or telephone are considered to be at low risk. They basically have to worry most about infection spreading among their employees. Fixes for these types of organizations include teleworking (preferred), employee awareness training, putting barriers or distance between employees, mandating that workers who are sick (or who suspect that they may have been infected) take sick leave/work remotely and ensuring that basic health and sanitation measures are in place at the workplace. In addition, anyone who becomes sick at work should be provided with a face mask and sent home or to a health care facility immediately. Businesses should also pay special attention to personnel that live with or have close contact with those who are at very high risk such as health care professional. These personnel should work remotely or should be tested for infection if at all possible. The latest studies suggest that Coronavirus may possibly be spread by infected people that do not yet have symptoms, or those whose symptoms have disappeared.

The number one rule for all people is this: if you are sick or think you may have been exposed to a pandemic virus, stay away from other people. If you must interact, wear a face mask (N95 or better if possible) and clean your hands often. And remember, you should continue to be careful for some time after your symptoms disappear. You may still be infectious.