Federal officials urge immediate preparation for pandemic

Private businesses need to begin preparing immediately for deadly pandemics and other potential disasters, a Homeland Security Department official said Tuesday.

In a panel discussion hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Homeland Security Senior Public Health Adviser Lynn Slepski said private firms need to examine how various technological solutions can help them continue operating during a pandemic. "There will be a period of time when life will not be normal," she said.

Slepski said her department is putting the final stages on a toolkit that private businesses can use for guidance on how to best manage their technological infrastructures and workforces and make other preparations for disasters. She said that while teleworking and wireless applications appear to be promising solutions, businesses need to be judicious about whom they hire to handle their information technology networks.

Raymond Strikas, the seasonal and pandemic influenza coordinator at the Health and Human Services Department, said the country is better prepared for a pandemic than many observers expect. He said accusations made last fall after Hurricane Katrina that the government is ill-equipped to respond to disasters are off base.

According to Strikas, the threat of a pandemic should not be approached as merely a hypothetical problem. He also dismissed recent claims that avian flu is being hyped like the "Y2K" problem at the beginning of the millennium. "It's not if, it's when," Strikas said.

In a separate discussion, Andy Malay, the vice president of the federal civilian division of SAP Public Services, said his company has incorporated disaster plans into its personnel strategies. He said SAP has been taking steps to make its workforce more mobile by issuing its employees laptop computers, cellular telephones and other wireless devices.

"We've established a matrix-like organization," he said.

C. Randall Mullet, the vice president of government relations for the Con-Way trucking firm, said pandemic preparation is complicated because he is in a low-tech business that depends on high-tech systems. He also said the nature of the trucking industry makes telework impossible.

"It puts us in a situation where we have to make a lot of choices," Mullet said.

The moderator of the second panel, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, said government should play a pivotal role for the private sector during a pandemic by protecting critical infrastructures necessary to the economy.

The event's keynote speaker, Rajeev Venkayya, a special assistant to the White House for biodefense policy, said that many of the things businesses need to do to enhance teleworking capacities in preparation for potential outbreaks are things they should be doing anyway.

"This isn't just important for pandemic planning," he said. "This is just good business sense."

But Venkayya said there is little the federal government can do to mitigate the effects of a pandemic by tightening border security and mandating travel restrictions. He said his office also is closely examining whether school closures would have an impact on rates of illness.

"The federal government is never going to be able to solve this problem," he said.

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