H1N1 Update: How to Prepare for Flu Season - Regina Phelps, Pandemic Expert

Schools are back in session in the U.S., the weather is cooling, and the fall flu season is close at hand.

So, how should businesses and government agencies prepare for the expected widespread return of the H1N1 virus?

Regina Phelps, a noted expert in pandemic preparedness, updates us on H1N1, discussing:

What we have learned so far about the pandemic;
Good - and bad - examples of pandemic preparedness;
How individuals and organizations can take steps today to ensure effective response to H1N1.

Phelps is an internationally recognized expert in the field of emergency management and continuity planning. With over 26 years of experience, she has provided consultation and educational speaking services to clients in four continents. She is founder of Emergency Management & Safety Solutions, a consulting company specializing in emergency management, continuity planning and safety.

TOM FIELD: Hi, this is Tom Field, editorial director with Information Security Media Group. We are talking today about H1N1 Virus, and we're taking with one of the foremost pandemic experts, Regina Phelps. Regina, thanks so much for joining me again to discuss this topic.

REGINA PHELPS: You're welcome, Tom; my pleasure.

FIELD: So, it's been some weeks since we last spoke, schools are open again in the United States, and the weather is cooling. What is the message now to US businesses and government agencies regarding H1N1?

PHELPS: Well, you know I think the big message is to get ready, and I think the government has actually done a good job of raising the slack about that very issue. Kids are now going back to school, and of course based on the fact of the H1N1 virus really likes young people -- the infection is the highest between the ages of zero to 25 years of age. Once we get all of those kids all going back to school and being in those classrooms, we're expecting a big spike in cases, and the cooler weather will of course just exaggerate that.

FIELD: Regina, what have we learned about H1N1 in the last few months in terms of what it is?

PHELPS: Well. that's a good question. I think there is some good news here, and there is also some news that can make us a little cautious. First of all, the good news is that so far in all the hemispheres and all of the countries that it has been in, it has been a mild disease. So that has been a really good piece of news. We also know that it is highly, highly infectious and that is now the predominant circulating virus around the world. And depending on which country you look at it is either 95% of the circulating influenza or somewhere in the high 70's. So it is winning the race of 'Gee, I want to be the influenza of the year.' The second thing or the third thing we know is it likes young people, which is very different than seasonal flu and other pandemics that we've had in the last half of the last century. And by that, I mean it likes people between the ages of zero and 25 years of age. It is where we are seeing the highest infection rate. It's also affecting pregnant women at an alarming rate, and also it seems to have an interest in people that are obese for some reason. That is a new kind of twist in the influenza cycle. We are also seeing underlying conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular disease being really impacted in about 60% of the death. And the last thing that we've learned about this illness is that the vaccine has been a little problematic in making. We've had a difficult time in creating the seed stack, and so correction is slow, and the initial number of the doses coming to the US will be much less than expected. They are expecting somewhere around 45 million doses coming out some time in October and maybe into early November, and they have therefore had to relook at the priority list to see who will receive vaccines.

FIELD: Regina, the flip side of that question, what have we learned about the virus perhaps that it is not?

PHELPS: Well, you know I think the way you could sort of frame that is that influenza is not predictable, so what we have really learned is where we can't put our fingers on it. We don't know exactly what it is going to do, and I think that is really the big message for listeners is that it may -- it is mild. The death toll is .5%, so it is very small, but the thing is that it is very unpredictable. We don't know what is going to happen, and so I think that is the key message. The thing that is also kind of unnerving about this illness is it is unpredictable. We have humans in a variety of countries infecting animals. That has happened with humans infecting pigs in pig farms, and not too long ago in Chile there was a case of humans infecting turkeys with this illness. So that is so unusual, and so it is an incredibly unpredictable disease, so I think the thing to be aware of is to stay tuned; we don't know what is going to happen.

FIELD: Now I know that you have traveled nearly 200,000 miles this year. I would be curious to hear what you've seen in your travels in terms of good examples preparing this in response?

PHELPS: You know I've spent a lot of time with my banking clients this summer in the UK, Ireland, and also in Singapore. And the UK and Ireland in particular have gotten some really excellent educational programs, so for your listeners if they are looking for something that they might want to show some short video clips, some printed information, and even coloring books for kids. The National Health Services has incredibly great materials, and they really promote them in extensively in the UK, and those items are on our website. Singapore also has done an amazingly good job of educating the population, as well as providing great materials. The other thing is I ran into: One of my banking clients in particular has one of the best work from home programs that they actually initiated due to the pandemic threat, but of course if you have a robust work from home program for any disaster, you'll be in better shape because you will be able to work from home more easily.

FIELD: Regina, can you tell us what that client is, so we can see what they've done?

PHELPS: Northern Trust.

FIELD: Excellent. Okay again flipside of this: You've talked about some good examples you've seen. What are some examples that we don't want to repeat in the US?

PHELPS: Well, I think there are two things. One is panic. When I was in India two weeks ago, the infection rate in India is really beginning to climb, and the media -- between the media and just the government response, the panic is crazy. And so I think what we need to really do is to be very aware of that. I think education is so important and communication is so important, but really minimizing panic. And sometimes people just only hear little snippets, and the next thing you know they are taking it to the next level. So I think panic is something we really have to avoid. Secondarily, the media needs to be responsible in their programming, and I think for the most part in the US we have seen really good, responsible programming. But at the same time there can be a little alarmist in the nature of how they might run a piece. So that is another thing; I would ask the media to be careful. Then I think the third thing that I think we have to be aware of is that people that look at the spring's first wave of the pandemic and think 'Well, gosh, we survived that. That wasn't a big deal; it didn't impact my business at all.' If they're thinking that is all we need to be looking at, I think that would be a mistake. The first wave was very small, insignificant for the most part for many parts of the country, and I think we are going to see a huge number of illnesses here in the fall.

FIELD: Personally, Regina, you've talked about pandemic preparedness for years now. Now we are here. What are you learning from this experience?

PHELPS: It is funny that you ask that question. When you ask me that question, the first thing that comes to my mind is: Denial is a powerful thing. Most people believe that we really don't have much to be concerned about, and of course that is not true. Even though the illness is mild, even though the death toll is mind, I do want to say to all of your listeners that the healthcare system in the United States is not built for a large number of people all to get sick at once. We have no capacity for surge. So what that means is that we when start having large number of people getting sick around the US, we are going to feel that in ways that we may not even be able to understand. For example, hospitals are already looking and planning to cut back on elective surgeries if need be, change how they are actually doing care, discharging people early, because we are looking at this incredible surge that will occur even in a mild pandemic. So I think what we need to be thinking about is that we need to be aware of how we can take better care of ourselves and our families and our communities to really minimize the impact overall for the country.

FIELD: Final question for you Regina. What today is the single best thing that individuals and organizations can be doing to prepare for H1N1?

PHELPS: Well, ultimately I think it is about education and communication. Education is so pivotal. Most people don't understand the flu; they don't understand really what they need to do, so I think an employer can do a huge benefit to the community, to families, and all their employees by really educating them and taking a responsible role. One of the ways they might be able to do that is if your listeners are doing seasonal flu shot campaigns this fall, and many are launching them right now, they have an incredible opportunity to educate employees about good hand hygiene, washing your hands frequently, cough protection -- you know, not rubbing your hands on your face. So those key issues are so important, because I will tell you when somebody has a needle in your arm, you have their attention, and a seasonal flu program will be a great opportunity for people to educate their workers.

FIELD: Very well said, as always. I appreciate your time and your insight, Regina. I'm sure we will be talking again before long.

PHELPS: Thanks, Tom.

FIELD: We've been talking with Regina Phelps about pandemic preparation. For Information Security Media Group, I'm Tom Field. Thank you very much.

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