Workplaces behind schools in swine flu prevention plans

Sunday, May 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:20 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 14, 2010

WASHINGTON — As recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prompt more schools to close for extended periods over the swine flu outbreak, businesses and other organizations are getting a much less clear message from public health officials.

CDC spokesman David Daigle said Saturday that federal guidance for offices and factories is "in the works" but could not say when it might be ready. "We hope the organizations have pandemic influenza plans," he added.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for national security and emergency preparedness, Ann Beauchesne, said corporate America is "not anywhere near" taking a stance as aggressive as ones taken by schools.

"Kids are little germ factories. It's different in offices with grown-ups," she said Saturday.

As the CDC continued working on its recommendations, President Barack Obama used his weekly radio address to reassure the public his administration is squarely confronting the outbreak. He underscored that 50 million courses of anti-flu treatment were stockpiled in anticipation of any outbreak — preparations he credited the Bush administration for helping put in place.

Obama also spoke Saturday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon for about 20 minutes to discuss what each country is doing.

The administration plans to continue its public relations campaign Sunday by sending three senior officials — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and acting CDC Director Richard Besser — to all five major Sunday morning talk shows.

Beauchesne said the administration's responsiveness "has been terrific," with 100-person conference calls scheduled for twice a week bringing together business representatives, the CDC and Napolitano's department.

"Because all the questions are being answered, there is really no anxiety," she said Saturday.

The CDC said Friday schools "should consider" sending students home if they have one or more cases of the new strain of influenza, under guidelines posted last week. The shutdown should last "up to 14 days," a reflection of the fact that children are contagious longer than adults. As of Saturday, at least 430 schools have temporarily closed.

A survey Friday of about 350 companies found that 54 percent have pandemic plans and 38 percent do not. About 18 percent said they are "extremely prepared," 72 percent "somewhat prepared" and 11 percent "not prepared."

About 80 percent of companies had communicated to employees their willingness to act. About 55 percent had restricted nonessential travel. Nine percent were screening employees for illness, and 3 percent were distributing antiviral drugs.

The survey was done by International SOS, a privately held French company that provides medical advice, pandemic planning and emergency evacuation services for 3,800 corporations and organizations around the world.

"There is clearly a range of views," said Timothy Daniel, vice president of International SOS's American operations, headquartered in Philadelphia. "They go from the very, very aggressive to saying, 'We're going to let the public health authorities manage this and not try to second-guess.'"

Among the aggressive policies is a voluntary four-day home quarantine for recent travelers to Mexico. He estimated about 20 percent of his company's clients are doing that.

Ninety percent of the 615 laboratory-confirmed cases of Swine-Origin Influenza A (H1N1) reported as of Saturday have been in the United States or Mexico.

The CDC reported 184 confirmed U.S. cases in 28 states, and the World Health Organization reported 443 cases in Mexico.

There have been 19 deaths in Mexico and one in the United States.

Among the big issues public health authorities everywhere are debating is whether to invoke the most drastic steps included in many pandemic plans.

"What we do should be in proportion to the severity of the disease," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, at the University of Minnesota.

He thinks the disease, at least as observed so far, may not be severe enough to justify school closings.

"We have to use what we've learned this week and hit the pause button now," he said Saturday.

— Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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