Local business leaders get lesson on preparing for bird flu pandemic

DULUTH - When, not if, a pandemic flu strikes Georgia it is likely to affect half the work force and create large-scale social disruption.

That was the message Frank Daniell, deputy director of emergency management for Gwinnett County, hammered home Tuesday in a presentation to about 30 business leaders at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.

If the avian or bird flu mutates and spreads to humans, as it is expected to do some time between fall 2006 and summer 2008, officials project that between 133 to 497 Gwinnett residents could die within an eight-month period. About 750 to 1,760 people will require hospitalization and 43,000 to 100,000 would need outpatient medical treatment, Daniell said.

In Georgia, a pandemic flu outbreak could cause the deaths of up to 6,000 people and hospitalization of as many as 21,000.

The most at-risk population are adults between 20 and 30 years of age.

"We're talking about Wal-Mart employees, cinema employees, gas station employees, hospital workers, police. It doesn't discriminate," Daniell said. "Any place can be touched and lose up to 50 percent of our work force."

The pandemic flu would be a worldwide outbreak of a virus to which humans have never been exposed, and to which there would be limited or no immunity in the population. It would be easily transmitted from person to person through the air.

Daniell said health officials are forecasting that an outbreak could be comparable to the most deadly human plague of the twentieth century, the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 - a global disaster that caused the deaths of 20 to 40 million people.

Daniell will brief Gwinnett County's Board of Commissioners about necessary emergency preparedness measures on April 17 and begin a larger-scale public outreach in coming months.

Health officials want people, especially businesses, to start preparing now for the worst-case scenario.

"Think about information people in your workplace will need if you are a manager," Daniell said. "This may include information about insurance, leave policies, working from home, possible loss of income, when not to come to work if sick."

Daniell warned that public gatherings such as church services, concerts and sporting events could be canceled under the authority of the public health director. People may be advised not to leave their house. Schools may be closed for an extended period of time and children will need supervision or home schooling.

"The day they say to do that is not the day to start preparing," Daniell said.

Checklists for businesses and families on how to prepare are already available online at www.pandemicflu.gov. Daniell also recommended businesses obtain a copy of "Are You Ready?" an emergency planning book produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is available at no cost by calling 1-800-480-2520, contacting the Gwinnett Emergency Management Office at 678-518-4805 or at local fire stations.

News of the dangers posed by a pandemic outbreak prompted Mark Petrucci, information technology director for the architectural firm Wakefield Beasley & Associates in Norcross, to think about what his office can do. He was concerned that some employees may not take the threat seriously.

"No one really believes it could happen," Petrucci said. "I would rather plan on it and it never happen than not plan on it. You can rest better knowing you've planned."

Another attendee of the seminar was also spurred to develop a strategy for coping with a pandemic flu outbreak at her office.

"It makes me realize I really need to learn how to do other peoples' jobs, even basic front office stuff," said Sally Wall, marketing representative for Atrium Imaging Group in Snellville.