Preparedness is Key to Outlasting Pandemics

The chaotic scenes were played out repeatedly nationwide in recent months. Panicky parents lined up with their children for hours at vaccination clinics to get immunized against the H1N1 virus, only to have the clinics run out of their limited supplies of the flu vaccine. Dr. Robert Handfield, NC State’s Bank of America University Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management, says the situation will likely occur on a much larger scale and jolt much of the U.S. economy in the future unless businesses better prepare for an influenza pandemic.

After a drug company asked Handfield how it could best build capacity to handle a viral outbreak that’s nearly impossible to predict, he began looking at the overall issue of pandemic preparedness. Because most economic resources are in the private sector, he interviewed company executives and trade group representatives in key industries, such as health care, financial services, food distribution, and utilities. “The biggest concern, beyond the tragic fatalities, is worker absenteeism,” says Handfield, who had to miss a few days of class himself last fall when his wife and daughter contracted H1N1. “Think of the impact on our gross domestic product if 20 to 30 percent of the work force is out sick for a few weeks.”

Handfield’s experience led him to formulate five basic rules that businesses large and small should address to limit the impact of a pandemic. First, get management on board for any planning effort. Second, identify risks in supply chains, especially with sole suppliers of products or services. Third, start stockpiling vaccines, masks, and gloves to limit the spread of the illness, as well as key components to keep operating if a supply chain is disrupted. Fourth, create back-up systems like beefed-up computer networks to handle large numbers of people working from home. Finally, train people ahead of time and eliminate confusion by outlining each employee’s responsibilities in a crisis. “Not everyone has to be at the über-planning level,” he says. “Just put a group together to do some basic preparations.”

“Think of the impact on our gross domestic product if 20 to 30 percent of the work force is out sick for a few weeks.”

Handfield is currently partnering with the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota on a more in-depth analysis of the risks to businesses and the economy from a widespread flu outbreak. “We’ve made it through H1N1 pretty well, but this was fairly mild,” he says. “A true pandemic may hit next year or not for 50 years, but we need to be ready for it.”

 

Dr. Robert Handfield interviewed company executives and trade group representatives in key industries to formulate some basic rules businesses should follow to limit the impact of a pandemic.

The vaccine shortages and other problems seen during the H1N1 flu outbreak are indicative of the issues the public and businesses will have to face in future pandemics.