Remember the pandemic threat? (Some) IT planners do

While media attention has dropped off, the threat has not, and organizations still need to plan for an outbreak

The avian flu has a plot line similar to a Stephen King novel. It's a menacing presence, mysterious and somewhat hidden, striking in out-of-way places and threatening broader havoc -- a global evil. And until this year, it was a best-seller in newsrooms, spurring headlines that raised public attention and spurred organizations to plan for it.

But media interest in the threat of a pandemic has fallen off. In a report this summer about pandemic planning, the White House said that attention to the pandemic has "waned in the media," while "the threat of avian influenza and the potential for an influenza pandemic has not."

The US Government Accountability Office followed up in a report last month, and said the challenge for many organizations is "maintaining a focus on pandemic planning due to the uncertainty of when a pandemic may occur" and the need to address more immediate issues.

"There's been a bit of what we call pandemic fatigue," says Myles Druckman, vice president of medical assistance of International SOS, a health and safety consulting service with some 4,500 employees worldwide. "When it fell out of the media, it also fell out of a lot of clients' priority lists ... because now they weren't being pushed, not only by the media but by their employees," he says.

In interviews of attendees at Gartner's data center conference this week in Las Vegas, IT managers said they were nonetheless continuing to prepare for the potential.

Bob Kallas, director of computer support services at a company he didn't want named, says his firm conducted a test a few months ago to see how many workers it could support remotely. The company picked a day and then told several hundred employees to work from home. "We want to measure readiness to be able to support the company," he says.

Richard Siedzik, director of computer and telecommunications services at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., says pandemic planning continues at his university, with bimonthly meetings held specifically to address the issue. From an IT perspective, he says, the major planning issue remains continuing operations if the university is forced to close, which mostly means ensuring there's enough remote access capacity on various systems.

But Siedzik says IT is only a small part of the overall planning challenge. For instance, the university has to prepare for the possibility that some students won't be able to return home because of quarantines in their community. "We have to make arrangements to sustain students on our campus," he says.

Chuck Conway, IT operations manager at an energy firm he didn't identify, says pandemic planning has become part of the company's overall business continuity planning, and he says it has examined its capacity to support remote workers and have developed scenarios. He says increased media attention on this issue may prompt more IT spending to build out even more capacity, but for now "we can live with what we have."

The avian influenza has killed a little more than 200 people, about half in Indonesia. The fear is that the virus will change into something that's easily spread by people, touching off a global pandemic.

Earlier this fall, financial services groups along with the U.S. Department of Treasury conducted a three-week planning scenario, and planned for pandemic that would kill about 1.7 million people in the U.S. and hospitalize 9 million. About 10,000 people from 3,000 companies participated in what may have been largest test of its kind in the world.

But when organizers held a press conference to announce preliminary details from the test, it received little in the way of press attention, except from trade publications, says Jim Binder, a spokesman for The Options Clearing, a Chicago-based provider of derivatives clearing and settlement service. Binder was involved in the overall organizing effort. "It's not as sensational to talk about the bird flu today as it was a year ago," he says.

The avian flu remains a focal point of several diligent blogs. Among them is the H5N1 blog maintained by Crawford Kilian, a writer who teaches at a Canadian college. In response to some questions, he wrote in a note: "Business planning for a pandemic is like making your will -- because you have to contemplate something awful, you'd rather not contemplate it at all. So if the media aren't nagging us, we'll put it off. The catch-22 is that they won't nag us unless people are dying daily and in growing numbers."

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