Pandemic Update: Regina Phelps on Level 6 and What it Means

On Thursday, the World Health Organization declared the H1N1 virus to be the first global pandemic in over 40 years.

In an exclusive interview, pandemic expert Regina Phelps explains exactly what this means, discussing:

How organizations should respond to this announcement;
Lessons learned so far from the H1N1 experience;
What to expect - and how to respond - in the coming weeks.

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.

FIELD: Hello, this is Tom Field, Editorial Director with Information Security Media Group. We are talking about the current pandemic and with us is one of the world's leading pandemic experts, Regina Phelps. Regina, thanks so much for joining me again.

PHELPS: You're welcome Tom. My pleasure.

FIELD: So the World Health Organization has declared we are at level six. What does this mean?

PHELPS: This has been a long-awaited announcement. The WHO has been building this up for the last two weeks and in reality we have actually been at a six for maybe three and half weeks now, globally.

When you look at what a six actually means to us right now, is it much different than it was two days ago? No. But what it does is provide a confirmation of widespread global illness for this novel virus known as H1N1. You are particularly seeing that now as it explodes across the southern hemisphere.

What does it mean to us here in the United States, or for that matter anywhere in the world? It means that this is our first pandemic of influenza since 1968. Currently, it is known as a moderate illness that was upgraded from the flu announcement originally a couple of weeks ago when it was described as a mild illness. The very minimal impact this might have is that we are going to have a very bad seasonal flue season in the northern hemisphere.

The worst-case scenario is that it could be a much more significant illness that could have protracted outages in work, as well as illness and fatalities across the globe.

FIELD: Given what we know now Regina, how should financial institutions and government agencies respond to the news?

PHELPS: The first thing they is pull out their pandemic plan; and I hope they have one. If they don't have one, they are certainly going to have to move quickly because there are 109 days until the flu season returns to the northern hemisphere. I would encourage all of your listeners to put a big calendar up on their wall and countdown to October 1st, which is the beginning of the seasonal flu season.

What does it mean for all of us? We need to look at our plans very seriously and we need to think about what we would do if we had a severe flu season with 30% to 70% of our population (employees, clients, customers, vendors, emergency responders, community) being sick? Influenza will be an illness that lasts approximately ten days to two weeks. So how would they be able to respond in that regard? That is a critical issue and there are four things that they need to think about very quickly.

One is how are they going to be able to communicate and what are they going to be saying to their key stakeholders for the next few months in their areas of preparation? And, how are they going to educate all of these individuals as to what they are doing to be better prepared for the pandemic when it actually reaches our illness levels that we forecast?

Secondarily, they are going to have to really look at issues related to cleaning because cleaning will be critical. They are going to have to look at things such as social distancing; how can they separate us from each other? Ideally about six feet--and that is not only from our co-workers but also from our customers. And then they are going to have to look at the question of, "will I be purchasing or procuring personal protective equipment such as masks?," which by the way now are almost impossible to get your hands on anywhere in the northern hemisphere. And if people don't have masks and they think that they need them for their pandemic initiatives, they better order them now.

FIELD: Wow. You have traveled a fair amount in recent weeks. How do you feel organizations have responded at this point to the progress that we have seen?

PHELPS: I have been all over Europe in the last two months. I have probably been in about 15 countries. I just finished doing a work assignment for a global client of mine which is a bank in the UK, and I was in London and Dublin.

Interestingly enough, just in the difference of a response between the UK government and the U.S. government, is really amazing. The UK government has launched some incredible public service announcements, initiatives and public education that far surpasses what we are seeing here in the U.S., which is wonderful to see and yet a little bit discouraging if you happen to be a U.S. citizen. What I would encourage all of your listeners to do is to actually Google a program in the UK that is called "Catch It, Bin It, Kill It." It is essentially a very quick, creative program that has been put up by the National Health Services in the nation of the United Kingdom that talks about health education for the masses. That is something that I would encourage your listeners to look at.

As far as what I have seen with responses from financial institutions in particular, I think everybody has pulled out their plans very seriously in the last two or three weeks and well certainly since the end of April. There was a little pause of hope in many people's minds at the beginning of June. They were thinking maybe it is going to change; maybe it is going to go away. But since the southern hemisphere has exploded, I think people began to be more realistic. So what I am seeing my clients in the banking world do is pull out their plans, see what they need to do to improve them quickly and understand they have a very limited amount of time. There is a rush of energy towards making some real significant process improvements.

FIELD: What has the pandemic taught us so far Regina?

PHELPS: When you ask me that question, what comes to mind is the fact that it has taught us that human nature still has a tremendous amount of denial about it. The thing I find interesting in particular is that even though I see a lot of forward motion, everybody I speak to has two significant questions that they ask, and this is where the denial piece comes in and maybe this is just simply human nature.

The first question I am almost always asked is, "how is it possible that the medical community globally doesn't know what is going to happen? And then secondarily, right behind that, there is this belief that medical science is going to rush right in at the last minute and save us. What it has taught me is that we still have this great hope that something is going to change, and maybe I will also put around that a little bit of denial. And I hope what we learn is that we don't know what is going to happen. Medical science is not going to save us. We need to take that very seriously and move forward.

I was with some individuals from the Department of Homeland Security recently who reiterated again that we haven't even selected the movement on the seed vaccine for the H1N1. So even if we started tomorrow, if it was able to be produced starting tomorrow, it would still be a good six months before a vaccine is going to be available. And when it is available, it is going to be first of all given to a list of key individuals of which the government has not yet determined.

So what has it taught us? We need to really buckle down. We need to accept this as something that is really going to happen and that we need to really make some forward progress.

FIELD: You know, it strikes me that people have watched this like they would watch a storm, like suddenly it is going to blow off course and not hit the coast after all.

PHELPS: Exactly right. And there is a lot of fingers crossed and a little bit of praying if you will. People are watching this happen in real time and yet there is a tremendous amount of denial that still exists today.

FIELD: Now you have given us a good sense of what to expect over the next 100 days and to prepare, what should we be communicating to employees and customers now?

PHELPS: That is one of the most important and responsible things that many of your listeners can be doing.

What I would suggest is the following. They need to first of all clearly identify who all of their stakeholders are and that is a little bit of a project when you stop and think about it. I would encourage people getting in a room in and whiteboarding that. Then once you have identified who those stakeholders are, the question is who owns that relationship? What is the primary form of communication to those stakeholders? Then what needs to happen is we need to determine what the messaging is. That messaging right now I would believe in my mind is we are taking this seriously and we are working very hard to update and upgrade our pandemic plans. We are working to make sure that our work environment will be safe and that our customers will be safe doing business with us. We are doing everything within our power to make this happen in a timely manner.

Then I would say that they need to take a look at the entire initial messaging that is going to happen after that. What happens when they get the first case of H1N1 in their facility? What happens when they have an employee who is seriously ill? What happens when they have an employee who dies? Think of what is going to happen in those communication strategies.

The last key thing they need to do is determine what the tools are that they are going to use to communicate, and there are lots of choices of course. Would it be their Web site? Would it be a voice mail? Would it be e-mail? Would it be Twitter? Would it be SMSs? What is the form of communication you will be taking? I encourage everyone to multiple channels of communication so they have a lot of opportunity to get the word out.

Identifying stakeholders, determining who the ownership of that is, determining the messaging at several key triggers in this event, and then what the tools are that they need to be using in order to be able to communicate effectively are the main priorities.

FIELD: Very good. Regina as always, I appreciate your time and insight.

PHELPS: You are welcome Tom; my pleasure.

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

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