How to Start Preparing Your Building for a Pandemic Flu
A pandemic flu is a global outbreak of disease originating from a new flu virus. Since most people have little or no natural immunity to these new flu strains, pandemic flus are likely to be more severe than seasonal flus with greater risk of hospitalization and death.
A recent swine-flu outbreak at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens alerted global health officials to an imminent pandemic risk. According to Thomas Frieden, the city health commissioner, the students' symptoms were similar to those of seasonal flu. And some of the 47 people at the school confirmed to be infected with swine flu are likely to have spread the virus to hundreds of friends and family members.
In other parts of the country, the number of swine flu cases has been rising, and reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that there are more confirmed cases to come. According to a recent press conference held by Dr. Richard Brenner of the CDC, there are confirmed cases of swine flu in 44 states, and he expects transmission to spread to all states.
A pandemic flu such as the swine flu (or H1N1) flu presents unique challenges for owners and managers because operating an apartment building at a high level, around the clock, is essential to continued business operations. The following are some flu-specific preparedness points provided by the National Multi-Housing Council report on apartment owner preparations for a pandemic flu that owners should expect to execute or consider in the near future.
Prepare for Staff Absences
The CDC has recommended that management emergency plans include expecting and allowing staff absences during a pandemic due to illness or family member illness, quarantines, and school or public transportation closures. As a starting point for developing a plan, owners should consider the following points when formulating a response plan to pandemic flu:
Consider leave policies that require sick individuals to stay home and accommodate situations where healthy employees are absent due to circumstances such as mandatory isolation. Policies should also provide clear guidance for indentifying and dealing with abuse of the absence policy.
Cross train employees to perform multiple job functions in anticipation of increased employee absenteeism.
Establish policies for telecommuting, flexible work hours, and staggered shifts to the greatest extent possible.
Establish protocols for staff to stay in touch with their supervisors.
Familiarize yourself with the New York City Health Department online at http://www.NYC.gov/health, and learn how to access and use its resources. This organization will be responsible for providing your community with up-to-date information about a pandemic, recommended procedures, and mandatory activities.
Minimize Chances of Transmission
The characteristics unique to apartment communities will probably not exacerbate flu transmission rates. Most flu is spread when infected individuals cough and/or sneeze. The vapor droplets released in these actions contain infectious viruses. However, these particles do not remain suspended in the air, so close contact with an infected individual is required for transmission. Experts consider three to six feet a protective distance from sick individuals. Therefore, the mere presence of sick residents within the apartment community should not pose a threat to other residents or staff.
HVAC systems. Shared heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems also do not generally help transmit flu viruses. Therefore, staff and tenants should not disable or otherwise alter HVAC systems unless expressly instructed to do so by local authorities or experts such as building engineers. Doing so could compromise the indoor air quality of the building and the overall health of tenants.
Transmission by fomites. Flu can also be transmitted through “fomites.” Fomites are inanimate objects such as tissues, money, and office supplies that can transmit infectious disease from one person to another. For example, when a sick individual touches a door handle, the virus can attach to that handle. Then, a second person coming in contact with that door handle can become infected. This kind of transmission can be minimized by frequent hand washing, cough etiquette, and other personal hygiene efforts.
In the apartment context, staff should increase the frequency and thoroughness of cleaning in common areas and of frequently touched items like elevator buttons, door handles, and intercom panels. Accordingly, extra supplies should be purchased ahead to ensure that proper cleaning and maintenance can continue despite shortages or disruptions in the supply chain due to a pandemic.
Follow Local Authorities' Directions
Apartment communities should avoid any activities that are counter-productive to greater mitigation efforts. For instance, if local authorities close schools, it would not make sense to create onsite childcare arrangements that mimic the classroom setting.
With the swine flu, according to the CDC's Dr. Bresser, what has been shown in Mexico and what the U.S. is experiencing is a large outbreak or an epidemic, made up of a series of smaller outbreaks and epidemics. Therefore, in Mexico, health officials are seeing increases in disease in some parts of the country and decreases in other sections of the country. Bresser expects to see similar patterns among the states. As a result, localized responses in New York may differ from what other regions of the United States are doing. This is why it's important to get pandemic flu information from New York State and New York City's Departments of Health. You can get the latest updates regarding swine flu from these organizations at http://www.health.state.ny.us/ and http://www.NYC.gov/health.
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