Epidemics to Pandemics

Wisdom is knowing what to do next, skill is knowing how to do it, and virtue is doing it. — David Starr Jordan

A pandemic is defined as a disease outbreak that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects a high proportion of the population with a new virus. This new virus is able to be transmitted between humans and results in serious illness and death worldwide. The lesser classification of an outbreak is called an epidemic, which impacts the population in a specific region. A pandemic is the same as an epidemic but without the geographical limitations.

Three conditions are required for a pandemic:

  • A new virus has to emerge for which people have little or no immunity
  • The virus has to be able to infect humans and cause substantial illness and death
  • The virus has to be able to spread easily among humans

Over the past several years, the World Health Organization (WHO), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other organizations have been predicting the outbreak of a global pandemic and have established warnings and recommendations for preparation of such an outbreak. Initial concerns and planning were linked to the H5N1 (Avian Flu) virus. Since the spring of 2009, we began focusing on a newly developing virus; the H1N1 (Swine Flu) virus. The virus quickly escalated into a WHO (World Health Organization) Phase 6 pandemic by the fall of 2009, with escalation of outbreaks recorded around the globe.

For our purposes, the name of the potential pandemic isn’t nearly as important as the fact that a global pandemic, of one sort or another, is almost a certainty. Pandemics can last months and sometimes even years. When this relatively slow moving disaster latches on in your area, it will move quickly. Many people will be unable to work, which will greatly affect how long businesses, banks, government offices and other services will remain open for business.

Whether you believe there is only a slim likelihood that a severe pandemic will materialize into a worldwide threat; believe the devastation will be so widespread that planning will be futile; are too busy to think about it, your family needs to plan for such an event.

A severe influenza pandemic will not be like natural or other types of physical disasters. As a communicable disease emergency, an influenza pandemic will have unique characteristics rather than those commonly associated with “typical” disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

A Unique Kind of Disaster

A pandemic presents unique characteristics that require implementation of activities to limit human-to-human contact such as restriction of movement, quarantine, and closure of public gatherings.

Widespread Impact

The impact of a pandemic will likely be widespread, possibly nationwide, rather than localized to a single area or region. Therefore, there may be little outside assistance to your state from other states or the federal government.

Emergency Duration

A pandemic will last a long time. It will not be like other disasters that present as short, sharp event leading immediately to the beginning of a recovery phase. Instead, a pandemic could last several months, as was the case of the 1918 influenza pandemic. It may also contain peaks followed by periods of reduced illness. During peaks of a significant pandemic an estimated 50% rate of absenteeism from work may be experienced.


There will likely be advanced warning of the development of the pandemic outside your state, but it is possible that such a warning period may be very short. Should an influenza pandemic spread within your region, it will probably be some weeks before the full impact on the workforce will be felt. There may be, however, some early impacts resulting from closures of schools and similar containment measures. (Someone will have to stay home to supervise school-age children.)

Primary Effect on Workforce Levels

Disruptions in the event of a pandemic are anticipated to be mainly human-resource oriented. Up to 50% of workers may be absent for periods of about two weeks at the height of a severe pandemic wave, with lower levels of absence for a few weeks on either side of the peak. Overall, a single pandemic wave may last about 8 weeks. Note that the pandemic may come in waves of varying severity over time. As such, it would be prudent for your family to plan for a minimum of three consecutive waves.

Absenteeism from work can be expected for many reasons:

  • illness/incapacity (suspected/actual/post-infection)
  • employees may need to stay home to care for ill family members
  • people may feel safer at home (e.g. to stay out of crowded places such as public transport)
  • people may be fulfilling other voluntary roles in the community
  • others may need to stay home to look after school-aged children (as schools are likely to be closed)

Primary Effects on You as an Employee

In the event of a pandemic, it is not only possible, but likely that your employer may alter some of the company’s human resource policies and benefits. Most employers are not financially positioned to withstand a 40% absenteeism rate and continue to conduct business as usual. It is important to understand how your employer’s policies and benefits will be impacted financially by a pandemic, and what that will mean to you. For example: sick, vacation and personal time; disability; workers compensation; family medical leave; office closures due to virus containment; government imposed quarantine.

There are many questions that should be asked so you are aware of what may occur in the event of a pandemic. Does your 401K or retirement plan provide for hardship withdrawals in the event you need access to funds? Will your employer pay out accrued vacation time if you run out of sick days? Will your employer pay you if you have to stay home because of a sick child? If you are afraid to go to work because others in the workplace are ill, will you be penalized? Will your employer pay for vaccines and anti-viral medications? Will your employer lay off workers, even temporarily, if they have to shut down a physical location? What is the impact of such a lay off? Will you be eligible for unemployment? By getting the answers to these questions you will be better positioned to plan for your family.

It’s possible you could choose to do nothing and assume the risk associated with a pandemic. However, that decision must be made after giving consideration to your exposure to the risk.

During the pandemic of 1918, about 28% of the United States’ population suffered, and 500,000 to 675,000 people died. It is estimated that anywhere from 50 to 100 million people perished worldwide. The current Avian Flu virus (H5N1), which is transmitted bird-to-human, is even more potent and is killing approximately 60% of the people who become infected. If the H5N1 eventually spreads human-to-human, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, The World Health Organization and the federal government predict there will be an absenteeism rate of over 40% for over 3 weeks at a time, in 3 separate waves. Your family’s well-being and financial stability would be severely affected in such a scenario.

At the moment, influenza or “the flu” is considered the most likely cause of a pandemic. The potential danger comes from the source virus mutating so rapidly that it becomes almost impossible to prepare an effective vaccine in a timely manner. Couple that with the fact that a person infected with the flu can travel around the world before realizing they are sick. By infecting many of those with whom they come into contact along the way, the probability of a global-scale crisis becomes obvious. If, as expected, the Avian Flu evolves to human-to-human transmission, it is estimated it will spread throughout the United States within 10 days.

“If a severe influenza pandemic struck today, borders would close, the global economy would shut down, international vaccine supplies and health-care systems would be overwhelmed, and panic would reign. Source: “Preparing for the Next Pandemic” Foreign Affairs Magazine-Jul/Aug 2005.

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