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Serious business: Seminar aims to help companies plan for pandemic

POSTED: March 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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If an influenza pandemic strikes, every segment of the community is going to be affected, including businesses.

But convincing companies that they need to be prepared has been a tough sell.

"So far, we’ve had absolutely no participation from the business community on this," said Cheryl Vandiver, spokeswoman for the Northeast Georgia chapter of the American Red Cross in Gainesville. "A lot of companies just say, ‘It (a pandemic) is never going to happen.’"

Wednesday morning at the Georgia Mountains Center, the Red Cross, Hall County Health Department and Hall County Emergency Management will team up to offer a pandemic preparedness seminar.

The aim is to show companies that even if a flu pandemic never hits, having a plan will be valuable.

"Preparing for a pandemic would also help businesses to be ready for other types of disasters," Vandiver said.

The seminar is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to noon. It’s free, but participants are asked to RSVP because breakfast will be served.

Hall emergency management coordinator William Wright said invitations have been sent to more than 60 of the county’s largest employers.

"We have met privately with the school systems and with some of the churches, and the hospital and public health agencies have participated in our planning sessions, but the business community has not," he said.

Wright said companies should consider how they’re being affected by the current seasonal flu that has sickened many people in Georgia.

Some businesses have been short-staffed as workers have become ill or have had to stay home to take care of sick children.

If a pandemic occurred, the same thing would happen, but on a much larger scale.

"That’s why businesses need to have a plan," Vandiver said. "They need to decide how they’re going to function if 30 percent of their work force is out."

Scheduled speakers at the seminar include Dr. J. Patrick O’Neal, director of preparedness for the Georgia Division of Public Health; John Turner of Business Executives for National Security; and James Satterfield, president of Firestorm, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that helps businesses deal with disasters.

Satterfield said everyone who attends will get a free copy of his book, "Disaster Ready People for a Disaster Ready America."

He also has a new book coming out soon called "The Pandemic Scam: Why Plan?" He said the title is a sarcastic take on the skeptical attitude many people have about the possibility of a pandemic.

"Our biggest competitor is ‘disaster denial,’" Satterfield said. "Most people tend to discount things they haven’t personally experienced."

But he said having a communicable disease plan will be helpful to businesses, regardless of whether there is ever a pandemic. Good policies on cleaning and hygiene, for example, can help stop the spread of any infectious illness.

Satterfield said businesses also need to be prepared for disruptions that may prevent them from making or selling their products. That could reduce revenue and even threaten a company’s survival.

"The Department of Labor says 40 percent of businesses that go through disasters never reopen," he said. "They don’t have the money to rebuild; they’re underinsured; they’ve lost employees and suppliers."

One major concern about a pandemic is that transportation will be curtailed, restricting the flow of goods across the country.

"We’re going to see a breakdown in the supply chain," Satterfield said. "Businesses need to identify alternatives. You’ll want to have redundant suppliers, and you might consider stockpiling."

He said the reason people need to get serious about a pandemic is that if it happens, there will be no place left untouched.

"In a tornado, for example, there’s a very narrow path of destruction," he said. "But a communicable illness event will occur everywhere in Hall County at the same time."



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