If a super-flu sweeps the globe, who will haul away the garbage? Keep the factories running, making cars and computers and tissues? Stock and sell groceries? Keep electricity flowing?
Most U.S. companies haven't planned for how to stay in business during a flu pandemic, when their workers may be too sick or scared to show up and their supply chains disappear, a major new survey of some of the nation's largest firms shows.
Two-thirds of the businesses surveyed said their companies were inadequately prepared to protect themselves during a pandemic and, demonstrating a surprising fatalism, 39 percent believed there wasn't much they could do.
The results also raise public health concerns: When asked if they would waive sick-leave restrictions to encourage potentially contagious employees to stay home, 63 percent of the companies were undecided and 10 percent said they would not.
That directly contradicts federal government recommendations that people who are coughing or have other flu-like symptoms stay home from work or school if a super-flu appears, voluntary quarantines considered key to stemming its spread.
"Corporate America is like everybody _ they read it and see it on television but they really can't completely digest it," former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said of the threat of a flu pandemic.
His new industry think tank, part of Deloitte & Touche USA, sponsored the survey, to be released Friday at a closed-door meeting. The gathering of about 25 corporate giants and public health specialists will focus on how to prepare for what scientists insist is the growing risk of a worldwide influenza outbreak, sparked either by the Asian bird flu or some other super-strain.
And next week, federal health officials will release specific guidelines to help companies prepare.
Among those recommendations: "That people have contingency plans that could accommodate between 10 and 20 percent of their work force being out at any given time for as much as two to four weeks," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt told The Associated Press.
The corporate emphasis isn't just because of economics, but because businesses provide products and services that people literally can't live without, explained Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, a public health adviser to the government.
He is helping officials compile what he calls "critical product continuity," ensuring that the most crucial products will be available during a pandemic.
"Automobiles, jewelry and electronics will not be big ticket items," Osterholm notes. But, "we still have to feed people. How do we assure we have heat, fuel oil, electricity?"
Some businesses do have major preparations under way.
In two weeks, Microsoft Corp. will roll out the first phase of its pandemic plan: an educational campaign for its 63,000 workers worldwide, along with bottles of hand sanitizers as a reminder that good hygiene helps prevent influenza.
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Companywide telecommuting — like the software giant already does when snow shuts down its Seattle-area headquarters — and when to distribute protective masks also are part of the planning, which company spokesman Lou Gellos says follows U.S. government and World Health Organization recommendations.
Preparations are much more complex when options like telecommuting aren't possible.
"Can you tell somebody, 'I'm sorry, you've got to come in here, we don't care that your family's sick?' Can we really do that? No," said Mike Maxwell, vice president of emergency preparedness for Pepco Holdings Inc., the utility that supplies electricity to almost 2 million people in the nation's capital and nearby states.
Yet a certain number of workers are vital to keep power flowing and restore outages, including those that occur in quarantined areas. The utility has some masks and other protective gear, and a pandemic drill planned for January will help define further preparations, said Maxwell, who also is working to ensure the government provides stockpiled vaccines and other pandemic supplies to utility workers who need them.
A pandemic "would be a cascading crisis for us as an organization," Maxwell said. "The more we do upfront, the better off we are."
HHS' Leavitt next week will stress that companies can learn from the months of disruption caused by the last century's three flu pandemics, including the 1918 flu that killed about 50 million people worldwide, 500,000 in the U.S. alone.
Plan as if a blizzard were coming, Thompson and Osterholm will advise Friday — a blizzard that could last up to 18 months instead of a few days.