A large majority of businesses anticipate severe problems maintaining operations if there is a significant H1N1 flu outbreak.
Even as businesses fret that the virus may deprive them of enough workers, health officials say employers need to loosen their sick leave policies to ensure sick people stay home. Those concerns emerged at a Minneapolis summit of about 250 business and health leaders discussing how to prepare for the H1N1 flu virus.
That strain of flu is much harder on some people it infects and can be especially deadly for some groups, such as teens, young adults and pregnant women.
A Harvard School of Public Health survey of 1,000 businesses of all sizes from across the country found 80 percent expect great difficulty maintaining their operations in the event a severe outbreak keeps a large portion of employees at home.
Firms are also concerned about the virus slamming suppliers located in less-prepared third-world countries.
The Harvard survey also found that employers have sick leave policies that may be counter-productive in the event of a severe outbreak.
About three-fourths of the respondents offer paid sick leave for employees. But a much smaller portion, only 35 percent, offers paid leave that would allow employees to take care of sick family members.
Even fewer companies, 21 percent, allow paid time off to care for children if schools or day care centers were closed.
“When we look at this virus issue, none of us have a clue what this will do; we just don't know.”Dr. Michael Osterholm
Public health officials, on the other hand, are urging companies not to hesitate in granting sick leave and letting people stay home sick or to take care of sick family members.
"Sick people stay home," said Lisa Koonin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "And if people become ill at work, they need to be asked to go home. We would not recommend mandating a doctor's note.
"Right now, in some communities, health care resources are being strained by the number of sick people and it's going to be hard to get a doctor's note in a timely way," Koonin said.
Nearly half of businesses that offer sick leave currently require a doctor's note to take that leave. More than two-thirds of businesses that offer sick leave require a doctor's note to return to work after contagious illnesses.
Amid these conflicting concerns, no one knows what to prepare for. H1N1 flu could be very deadly or it might be about as bad as seasonal flu. Of course, the seasonal flu does kill tens of thousands of people every year. The wild card is just how much of a wallop will the H1N1 bug eventually pack.
"When we look at this virus issue, none of us have a clue what this will do; we just don't know," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. The virus, he said, "will change genetically. We have no doubt about that. But will it actually become a cause of more severe disease in people or less severe? We can't tell."
Osterholm advocates preparing for the worst and he's ready to be second-guessed if things don't turn out so bad.
"We're going to have people asking us, 'Did you scare the hell out of me needlessly?" if, in fact, nothing changes," he said. "All I would remind you is that we're not done with this, and I'd rather be prepared for something that doesn't happen than unprepared for something that does."
The H1N1 vaccine is slated to arrive in Minnesota next month. Within two to three months after that, there should be enough vaccine for everyone who wants it.
So far, there have been three confirmed deaths in Minnesota from H1N1 flu and about 300 have been hospitalized.