As property professionals, we are all used to preparing for the worst case scenario when it comes to emergency preparedness. That’s why it’s such a relief when our worst case scenario actually turns into a best case scenario. Many people breathed a huge sigh of relief last spring when the H1N1 outbreak that had such a menacing start in Mexico turned out to be a less virulent strain than predicted.
But, relief often breeds complacency. Although H1N1 did not have the devastating impact many predicted in North America last spring, it was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) this past June, the first influenza pandemic since 1968. In many nations, including the United States, the severity of H1N1 has been akin to or even less than seasonal flu, but at press time the number of cases worldwide topped 182,000 with a death toll of nearly 1,800 people.
Round 2 of H1N1 is coming, and by the time this issue hits your desk it may be in full swing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) anticipates the H1N1 virus will spread again in North America this fall, with infection levels expected to meet, if not exceed, the severity of the spring. We are telling building managers to be flexible and develop a plan. Providing resources and education and maintaining open lines of communication with employees, tenants, vendors, and health officials are essential.
Chairman, BOMA Intl.
Building owners and managers need to develop flexible attendance policies and have an alternative building operations plan in place to account for employees who may be unable to work. Our message to tenants, which is reinforced by CDC officials, is that employers should strongly encourage employees with flu-like symptoms to stay home and reassure them that their job is secure. The CDC estimates that the average person infected with H1N1 will be out of work anywhere from 3 to 5 days and advises those individuals not to return to the workplace until 24 hours after their fever has ended. When employees return to work, employers should not require a doctor’s note, as healthcare professionals may experience a surge in patient needs and requests. The same flexibility is also encouraged for those employees who must stay home to tend to a relative that has contracted the virus.
Should severity of the swine flu increase, it may be necessary for building managers to implement an operation continuity plan. BOMA Intl. is urging its members to reach out to key crisis vendors and tenants to determine their plans and to be able to provide a minimal level of service to the building. Managers should also plan for community-invoked social distancing strategies to reduce the spread of disease. Social distancing can lead to school and daycare closures, requiring employees to leave the workplace for an extended period of time.
Resources and Education
A key part of a preparedness plan is providing employees and tenants with resources and education. CDC’s most recent guidance for business and employers includes:
- Sick persons should stay home.
- Sick employees at work should be advised to go home.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Improve hand hygiene.
- Clean surfaces and items that are likely to have frequent hand contact.
- Encourage employees to get vaccinated.
- Take measures to protect employees who are at higher risk for complications of influenza.
- Prepare for increased numbers of employee absences, and plan ways for essential business functions to continue.
- Advise employees to take certain steps before traveling.
- Prepare for the possibility of school dismissal or temporary closure of childcare programs.
Maintaining open lines of communication is critical. Since H1N1, like all influenza, is unpredictable, there’s no telling just how severe the outbreak may be in your community. It’s paramount that regular communication takes place between your building management team and your state and local health agencies to know exactly how widespread the virus is in your area.
Don’t let complacency seep into your preparedness plan. If you take these steps to plan for the worst and hope for the best, you increase the chances that your building will continue to operate with minimal disruption. The real best case requires vigilance.
James A. Peck is chair and CEO at BOMA Intl. and senior director of asset services at CB Richard Ellis in Albuquerque, NM. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information on this and other topics, call BOMA Intl. at (202) 408-2662 or visit www.boma.org.