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Time to Dust Off the Pandemic Plan

Today I read a useful article on pandemic planning by Lisa M. Koonin in the Journal of Business Continuity and Emergency Planning. The article outlines practical steps that organizations should take now to prepare for a pandemic.  I thought a summary might be useful for my colleagues.

Many businesses created pandemic plans a decade or more ago when we faced H1N1, SARS, MERS, Ebola and other health crises.  Unfortunately many of those plans have since been gathering dust on the shelf. It is time to dust them off and update them for today’s pandemic, COVID-19.

Planning for a pandemic is an essential part of business continuity planning for any organization.  But especially for organizations that provide vital services, such as healthcare, infrastructure and the food supply, a plan is a must. Those businesses that not only have  a pandemic plan, but that regularly test and update it, can significantly reduce the risk to employees, customers, the community and the business itself.

The depth and breadth of COVID-19 is changing daily, and it befits leaders to access information being provided by the scientific and healthcare communities to understand what’s happening, both in their local community, across their business and the world in general.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (https://cdc.gov) and the World Health Organization (https://who.int) are two organizations that are providing constantly updated, science-based information to help individuals, organizations and communities make plans and take actions to protect people and help slow the spread of the virus.

Developing a response to a pandemic can’t be done in a few hours.  Organizations are complex, with a lot of moving parts that make response complicated.  Among the areas to consider:

  • Employee exposure to illness in the workplace and absenteeism that reaches 30 percent or more may severely disrupt operations;
  • Supply chain and transportation disruptions and shortages can impact production;
  • Severe reductions in demand for products or services may force layoffs;
  • Increased operational expense amid revenue shortfalls hurt the bottom line; and
  • Reputational risk and damage to the brand can threaten survival of the enterprise.

Organizations that must remain operational in the face of a pandemic play a critical role in supporting civil society. Those that operate globally must be especially vigilant in pandemic planning. Countries are closing borders to travelers and migrants, and eventually we may see significant disruption to the cross-border transport of goods, as well.

Existing business continuity plans created for natural disasters already contain many of the elements needed for a pandemic plan. There are additional considerations that should be noted. For example, while a natural disaster typically impacts one area, a pandemic may affect the entire country at once, meaning that a company may not be able to simply move people or resources from one region to another. We’re at the stage with COVID-19 where there is uncertainty about how severe the impact will be, so recommendations from public health officials are likely to change frequently.  Planners should subscribe to daily updates from a variety of sources, including mainstream media and government entities. Experts recommend that pandemic plans include response strategies that range from mild to severe levels of infection.

According to Koonin, there are four important areas of business pandemic preparedness that are relevant for any level of severity: continuity planning; workforce protection; protecting customers and the broader community. Testing components of the pandemic plan with exercises, while a critical part of effective planning, may not be possible in the coming months.

Business continuity planning should consider a number of areas, including:

  • Response management/leadership team
    • Leading by example
    • Succession planning
    • Every member of the crisis management team needs a backup
  • Staffing amid significant absenteeism
    • Cross training, remote work
    • Sick leave policy, sending sick employees home
    • Restricting travel
    • Social distancing in the workplace
    • Disinfecting the workplace if anyone has tested positive
    • Additional employee services that may be needed temporarily
  • Communications with internal and external stakeholders
    • Crisis communications plan
    • Educating employees and stakeholders about the pandemic, including protective measures recommended by health agencies
  • IT systems capacity and backup
    • Support for teleworking employees
    • Tele- and video-conference capabilities/skills
  • Remote work equipment and access to internet
    • Systems security, VPN access, etc.
    • Postponing or canceling large in-person meetings/conferences
  • Addressing supply chain issues
    • Backup suppliers if primary suppliers unable to maintain needed levels
  • Public health considerations
    • Credible sources of local information, collaboration with other organizations as appropriate
    • Shared best practices
  • Alternatives to delivering goods and services
    • Protecting customers
    • Minimizing physical contact between employees and customers
    • Tissues and hand sanitizers
    • Effective signage to inform customers

Organizations that act quickly to implement existing or new crisis management and communications plans stand the best chance of weathering the coronavirus storm.