Swine flu poses problem for companies

A worker at Key Technology is recovering, but the warning shot has been fired locally.

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�With one employee recuperating at home from what management suspected to be swine flu, Key Technology of Walla Walla is being careful not to overreact, officials there said Tuesday.

"We're stressing the need for careful hygienics. We're providing sanitizer products, stressing keeping your hands clean," noted Dennis Hopwood, vice president of human resources at the international food-technology manufacturing corporation.

The company may be ahead of the curve in terms of planning for the potential impact of the pandemic flu that health experts are saying is likely to come with the arrival of the traditional flu season. Be it to address swine flu or the yearly seasonal variety, vaccine manufacturers are scrambling to produce answers.

Both illnesses are killers. Seasonal flu kills about 36,000 in the United States annually. Swine flu -- aka H1N1 -- has been blamed for nearly 8,000 U.S. hospitalizations and 522 deaths as of Aug. 20, according the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, unlike the the enemy we've become accustomed to, swine flu is appearing to target a non-traditional population. With 53 states and territories reporting H1N1 activity, the illness is hitting pregnant women and young people hardest, the latter a group most likely to be found in school and the work force.

Vaccination priorities just released put an emphasis on pregnant women, family members and caregivers of children 6 months old or less, health-care workers and people age 6 months to 24 years. How those guidelines are met will depend on how much vaccine is produced, said Harvey Crowder, administrator of the Walla Walla County Public Health Department.

As of Tuesday, however, the state of Washington had no idea when a swine flu vaccine might show up or what dosing will be called for, he explained.
Crowder also pointed out there had been only one confirmed case in the county -- testing for swine flu is not done until the severity of symptoms calls for hospitalization.

Nelson Irrigation, which employs about 80 people who must be on site to do their jobs, is at the very beginning of thinking ahead, said Anna Harding. Her company is printing up posters for employees and keeping an eye on CDC updates, she said Tuesday.

Harding, a personnel assistant in Nelson's human resources department, is aware of the need to get the ball rolling, she said. "We're having a staff meeting this afternoon and it just might be the perfect time to bring this up."

Employee loyalty could backfire in the flu season ahead, Hopwood noted. "We have a very dedicated work force. People may be tempted to try and work through it, so we have told our managers they have the right to send people home, he said.
"And we are of legal advice we are on solid ground for that."

As well, parents of flu-stricken children will have to do the same. Not only to tend the patient, but "there is a high probability you will get this," Hopwood said. "If someone is ill, we don't want to make it worse ... our signal to people is that this is a highly contagious situation and we want you to go home."

All Key employees have sick leave, said David Camp, president and CEO of Key Technology. "Some people have chosen to (purchase) short-term disability, people have accumulated vacation pay. And under the Family Leave Act, everyone is entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave peryear to take care of themselves or their families.

"If something were to develop further, most employees have plans to deal with that."

Although Key officials said they don't expect a swine flu vaccine to be available until mid-October, the company's order for seasonal flu vaccinations is already reserved for the third year in a row.

"We pay for the vaccine," Camp said. "We do that because some people might not get the shots themselves if they have to pay for it and we feel this is a risk we can't afford, to have so many people ill at once."

Employees are also being urged to be in discussion with their own primary care doctors, Hopwood said. "We have employees who travel constantly and that is uncontrollable."

Other Key locations around the globe are ramping up their own preparedness for the flu season, he added.

The Walla Walla office of juice producer Cliffstar Corporation is awaiting corporate word from the New York headquarters on how to plan specifically for this flu season, said Leah Hale, human resource manager. "They typically provide direction on that if a policy needs to be in place. And that hasn't been discussed."

She has posted information about H1N1 and prevention tactics, however, and the company keeps a crisis management plan on file, Hale said. "Actually, I think swine flu would fall into that."

A big enough flu hit on the nearly 70 employees here could shunt production to the nearest company plant in Fontana, Calif., the manager added. "It would impact us quite a bit with even two or three people out."

Key Technology is trying to guess at the most pragmatic things to do, Camp said. That includes concern for customers and asking all employees to think about what projects are in process and what information would need to be conveyed to others in case flu decreases workers at the plant.
The recent upgrade in virus awareness is not lost on the Key administration, he added.

"Frankly, we are sort of guessing at a lot of this. We're flying blind like everyone else. I wish we had a more comprehensive approach."
Hopwood has his own best-case scenario, he said. "I hope this turns out to be like Y2K -- much ado about nothing."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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