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Avian Flu: Making a Plan

© Stephanie Desocio

You've experienced it firsthand: You arrive at work only to learn that the cat cages have yet to be cleaned because a member of the morning crew is sick. The shelter is set to open in 20 minutes, and there are already 10 messages on voice mail that no one's been able to pick up yet.

When someone can’t come to work, one domino falls and hits another as the workload for the remaining staff goes up and productivity goes down. And that’s just with one person missing. But what if, little by little, half of your coworkers stopped coming to work? What if it went on for days? What would happen?

News about avian flu and other potential pandemic diseases have whole governments worried about what long-term absenteeism might do to businesses and to the global economy. But for workplaces like police departments, hospitals, and animal shelters, where people provide care and vital services to living creatures, finding answers to the questions is even more critical.

Read more about bird flu in the feature article Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bird Flu from the May/June 2006 issue of Animal Sheltering. For general preparedness checklists, visit www.pandemicflu.gov.

The World Health Organization warns we may be on the verge of a pandemic, whether the outbreak comes from the H5N1 flu virus or some other source. There’s no reason to panic, of course, but you should be prepared.

Some animal care organizations are facing the potential crisis head-on as they develop plans for an avian flu pandemic. The “what ifs” can seem overwhelming, but shelters are gathering supplies, educating staff, and planning ahead.

If you haven’t started planning, these snapshots of preparations being made by two shelters can give you ideas, spark questions, and spur you into action.

THE SPCA OF MONTEREY COUNTY

Location: Monterey, California

Number of staff: 46

Quote: “We’ve got the big picture; we’re really trying to work on the details now.”

The SPCA’s preparations have included:
• Creating a document detailing the equipment and resources of ten area agencies
• Creating a staff hand hygiene protocol
• Taste-testing MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and choosing a vendor

The organization’s future tasks include:
• Exploring the purchase of a power generator in case of outages
• Creating policies regarding employees who contract influenza; when should they return to their jobs?
• Continuing to purchase supplies on the shelter’s “Stockpile” list

Sample documents:
Stockpile list
Needs and resource matrix
Matrix detail
Hand hygiene tips
Personal preparedness kits
Pandemic influenza plan

Stocking Up

The SPCA is preparing for the potential need to keep a core group of staff living on-site to care for the animals, says human resources manager Gina Galuppo. The organization has determined that about 18 employees will be needed, possibly for 60 days. (In the scenario they’ve planned for, the facility is closed to the public). And they’ll need a lot of supplies.

The SPCA’s board recently allotted $20,000 toward purchasing needed items, and Galuppo has gathered many of the things on the shelter’s list, which run the gamut from a battery-operated radio to freeze-dried MREs that have a shelf life of 35 years.

Show and Tell

SPCA staff who want to create personal disaster preparedness kits can get tips from a shelter document that explains how to put one together. The document recommends including cash, first aid items, a manual can opener, and many other supplies. “The idea behind the kits is to make sure that our employees are prepared at home, especially for those 18 that are going to need to stay here,” says Galuppo. “They need to feel secure in knowing that their family is taken care of at home.”

After determining that most SPCA staff hadn’t put together their own kits, the executive staff have decided to lead by example. They plan to assemble their own disaster kits—one each for their home, work, and car—and bring them to work to display.

Playing “Stump the Government Agency”

The SPCA has been told that they’re ahead of the game with their disaster planning, says Galuppo. She’s found that some government agencies they’ve called on don’t yet have the answers they’re seeking.

When Galuppo wanted to know whether the shelter would need a written policy to require employees to wear a NIOSH N95 face mask during a pandemic situation, she sought the advice of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. At the federal level, the agency had no answers for her, so she went lower.

“Knowing that California is even more stringent … I went to Cal-OSHA, and sure enough, they had plenty of regulations— none of which [were] for a natural disaster or pandemic,” she says. “So they said, you know, ‘You’re on your own.’ ”

Just a Flip of the Switch

During a pandemic, it’ll be important to be able to distribute information to the public quickly and easily. The SPCA is laying the foundations for that now. “We’re looking to create some black screens on our website where we’ll already start writing information down about what the community should do if this hits, and then if it does hit, we can just turn the screens on,” says Galuppo. “We’re trying to get that sort of information ready to go so it’s just a flip of the switch.”

THE EDMONTON HUMANE SOCIETY

Location: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Number of staff: 45

Quote: “There are a lot of things that can potentially be affected—that could be simple things like your sewage, your water, electrical interruptions.”

The SPCA’s preparations have included:
• Incorporating elements designed to help with emergencies into plans for a new facility, like back-up water tanks
• Holding a training session for staff on what pandemic influenza is and how to make personal plans
• Training staff to perform additional duties

The organization’s future tasks include:
• Deciding how to deal with an anticipated drop in donated funds when the next pandemic hits
• Discussing plans with other shelters

The Cold, Hard Numbers

Stephanie McDonald, executive director at the shelter, puts things into perspective with the statistics her province could face if pandemic influenza hits. “What they’re predicting right now is 1.3 million people in Alberta will be ill,” she says. “And of that, 617,000 of them will require outpatient care. Thirteen thousand will require hospitalization, and they’ll expect 2,600 deaths. That is a huge impact.”

Half and Half

Another statistic McDonald cites is 50 percent; that’s the shortage of staff she expects in a pandemic. She’s planning for the worst, taking authorities’ estimates that 35 percent of the population could be affected by a bird flu pandemic and bumping them up significantly. McDonald’s number takes into account those staff members who don’t have the flu themselves but have family members needing care at home.

Lining Up Help

Foreseeing a possible need for volunteers to pitch in to care for the animals, the Humane Society is handpicking certain individuals and preparing them ahead of time. “Generally, we bring [volunteers] in and they get to do all the feel-good, yummy, walk-the-dogs, day-to-day care, and we don’t really teach them disease management or vaccines,” says McDonald. “So we’re starting to actually take a few volunteers, the dedicated ones, up a few more notches.”

A Touch of Caution

When the next pandemic flu hits, shelter employees won’t want to give those willing volunteers a handshake of thanks— or shake hands with anyone else, for that matter. Casual person-to-person contact won’t be routine in a pandemic. “Once it hits the continent, you’ll want to watch hand shaking and things that we typically take for granted in terms of social etiquette,” says McDonald. “They’re telling you that you need to … look at your office layout, make sure that people are not facing each other, things like that.”

 

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