Businesses tailor pandemic flu plans

Businesses are working to keep pace with the fast-changing developments surrounding the H1N1 virus by crafting or fine-tuning their pandemic preparedness plans.

TORONTO — Businesses are working to keep pace with the fast-changing developments surrounding the H1N1 virus by crafting or fine-tuning their pandemic preparedness plans.

Yet one tool that more than likely won’t be in their arsenal will be the ability to distribute the vaccine independently through onsite workplace clinics.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says it’s up to provincial and territorial public health officials to determine how the vaccine will be distributed.

Michael Geiger-Wolf, director, business continuity for Ceridian Canada, whose company provides employee assistance programs and support to human resources departments, said they’ve been advised by the government that the vaccine won’t be made available through sponsored clinics by employers or third-party agencies.

In Ontario, workplaces have offered the seasonal flu shot for the last number of years, but with the H1N1 vaccine, it’s a different approach, said David Jensen, spokesman for the province’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

“What would happen with the seasonal flu program is the workplaces would be able to order the seasonal flu vaccine directly from the manufacturer. They’re not able to do that with H1N1. It’s going from the federal government and then on through the provinces,” Jensen said.

There are specific requirements for storing, reconstituting and administering the vaccine, as well as a lot of data collection and adverse event reporting involved that was never done for the seasonal flu program, he added.

While further discussions with local health units may yield some other strategy of a way to offer the vaccine in workplaces, Jensen said as of now it’s “doubtful.”

With already-lengthy lineups for vaccinations, employers may have to accommodate workers who might need time off to get themselves or their kids vaccinated.

At a recent pandemic planning seminar held in Toronto organized by the International Centre for Infectious Diseases and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, it was suggested employers consider giving workers a few hours off to get vaccinated, much like time allotted to vote in an election.

“I think most employers recognize that this is not something that comes along every day,” said Ken Kobly, president and CEO of Alberta Chambers of Commerce. “I don’t think they’d run into too much flak from their employer to stand in line and get a shot.”

It’s another consideration businesses must now take into account along with the possibility employees may need to take time off if they or a loved one are sick.

In other cases, illness not directly impacting workers could still have a ripple effect, such as recent school closures seen in Vancouver, New Brunswick and Conne River, N.L., linked to H1N1.

“I’m sure if there was a need, then we would be very open to employees staying home and caring for their family and themselves and not infecting the workplace,” said Pat Tenney, executive director of the Lloydminster Chamber of Commerce, whose organization has shared pandemic preparedness tips with their members in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Geiger-Wolf said their advice to clients is that they’re much better off to lose an employee for a short period of time while they’re caring for either themselves or others versus losing an entire department because they’ve come into work sick.

“Particularly in these kinds of situations where employees have no control . . . you need to be flexible and you need to allow them the time off and the ability to care for both themselves and their families.”

Kobly said among his office of six staff members, the message has been consistent for years: if you’re not well stay home, something that has been merely reinforced with H1N1.

“People’s prime responsibility when they become ill is number 1 not infect somebody else and number two get better,” he said.

“If somebody is going to go home with H1N1 probably the least of what they should be concerned about is whether they’re preparing that report that they need to have done.

“ I think everybody’s going to pitch in and they’re going to cover everybody off.”

Businesses are also crafting continuity plans on how to keep operations moving.

Helen Kvasnyts, an employee in charge of human resources, health and safety at a family-owned company, said they’ve done work around ensuring individuals would be able to work from home if the office shut down.

But she attended the recent

Toronto seminar to find out more about general guidelines of pandemic preparation and what to communicate to employees, who had questions surrounding the vaccine, symptoms and whether it was safe to come to work.

“Right now, it’s more of people are panicking and worried about what’s going on, so we need to be in a position to address it and explain it to them.”

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