Round tables address IT problems, infrastructure, workplace concerns over flu pandemic

Bracing for the chaos

The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control have declared pandemic influenza the number one health threat facing the world today.

Temperature is rising in St. Louis as businesses and information technology experts tackle the ramifications of a flu epidemic.
Temperature is rising in St. Louis as businesses and information technology experts tackle the ramifications of a flu epidemic.

Key reasons that it is such a threat in the United States are the visibly palpable Hurricane Katrina debacle and the assurance of the Federal government that it will not contribute to any preparation to thwart a pandemic — the Feds have made it clear that pandemic influenza is a local problem.

St. Louis is one of the few cities trying to stay ahead of the pandemic curve, thanks to workshops being conducted this spring and summer that bring together area institutions and businesses in round table formats. The Business Community and Pandemic Flu Round Table is sponsored by the Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and the University’s School of Medicine. CAIT is St. Louis’ center for IT training, professional development, and executive interaction for more than 25 years. More than 100 business and institutional attendees are learning to address everything from potential vaccines and medications to sick leave policy and protective gear.

Problems with Internet traffic

Information technology is an integral part of all of the problems associated with a pandemic, according to Round table director Bill Darte, CAIT senior technical associate at Washington University in St. Louis. Darte said a key, overlooked impact a pandemic would have on a community is Internet traffic and communications.

“I have significant reservations about whether the infrastructure for ‘network services’ will support the strategies of work-from-home that may be implemented by many organizations,” Darte said.” Still, I cannot say of my own knowledge that such will be the case. There are many factors that come into play. By way of example: When I work at the University, I spend a significant amount of time on the Internet. If I worked from home, what incremental impact would exist? Little, I think. On the other hand, a clerk that utilizes an internal database or application for a firm would have to communicate in the same way, but from home this would be 100 percent new traffic on the metropolitan network. And, depending upon who the ISP was for both the firm and the worker at home, there could be regional traffic loads as well.”

In addition, Darte said that a pandemic could pose problems of large-scale absenteeism, and organizations and businesses need to address such concerns as sick-leave policies, protective equipment for employees, deciding who should go home and who would remain at work and keeping the illness from spreading.

He said that employees will need to successfully adapt to dramatic changes in community services — like schools, public transportation, and hospitals — while still remaining healthy, caring for their families, and maintaining the productivity that the organizations need to survive.

Since 1997, 53 countries have been infected with Avian Influenza and over half of those have happened since January 1, 2006. The U. S. government warns that the virus will make its way to the United States yet this year. Human infections have followed this spread with a case fatality rate of greater than 50 percent.

“Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government will, at the last moment, be able to come to the rescue will be tragically wrong,” according to U. S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.

St. Louis businesses employ nearly three million people. Darte said the ability to survive a pandemic influenza that may last up to 18 months will depend upon preparing operations and employees for dramatically altered circumstances and to plan in concert with business partners, community agencies and government.

“To help limit risk to business and employees, CAIT is presenting this comprehensive and condensed program that will provide business leaders with the needed information to introduce practical response policy and procedures into an organization,” he said. “The overall impact to St. Louis will be the aggregate response of all individuals. Since most individuals are employees, they and the community rely on businesses to help them prepare. In addition, a community website for pandemic planning and further community organization will be developed in an effort to advance overall regional preparedness.”