On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the H1N1 virus (swine flu) a global influenza pandemic.  It was the first such declaration in more than 40 years.

Although pandemic refers to the geographic spread of a virus, not its severity, government officials warn against complacency as the virus is expected to continue to spread and could turn more virulent.  Therefore, business owners must remain diligent in their efforts to prepare for a more severe outbreak in the coming months. A national emergency situation, especially a severe pandemic, has the ability to stress the resources of every state simultaneously, reinforcing the need for a plan that anticipates a degree of self-reliance, Unlike other industries, apartment firms must consider not only corporate preparedness but also the continued operation of their communities and, to the extent possible, protection of apartment residents. 

Most apartment firms have an emergency preparedness plan in place and have expanded them to address a flu pandemic. And they were  given the opportunity to practice it a few months ago as the number of infections increased. However, some firms are still struggling with plan development. NMHC is strongly urging companies to review their existing plans (or develop one if they do not yet have one) and to adapt them to accommodate a possibly more severe flu outbreak. 

This article highlights key elements of any effective flu emergency response plan.  Of course, as in any corporate policy involving risk management, we encourage you to seek expert consultation in developing your own plan.

Management “Buy-In”

Firms should start by creating a "Crisis Team" comprised of senior executives charged with developing the plan.  Since the impacts of a pandemic flu can vary significantly, team members should include personnel from the corporate suite, risk management, human resources, legal, information technology, and operations.  And team members should have decision-making and spending authority.

Communications

Accurate, timely and regular communications with employees, residents, suppliers and even the media are critical.  Make sure you have all available contact information for your staff, residents and suppliers (cell, e-mail, fax), and develop alternative ways to disseminate information (corporate web sites, hotlines) in case telecommunications are disrupted.  Also be sure to appoint spokespersons

The most common communications will concern pandemic prevention practices, changes in office policies (telecommuting policy or sick time) and resident communications.  Certain resident policies will need to be adjusted, such as transitioning to an emergency-only maintenance policy. 

Infection Control

Clearly the most important and ongoing component of any plan. Everyone is now familiar with the “common sense” approach to infection control-practicing proper cough etiquette, washing your hands frequently and staying home if you are sick.  

Once beyond the early stage, enhanced measures may be required, such as sanitizing work areas, public places and commonly touched elements (door handles, elevator buttons, etc.) and placing hand sanitizers in common areas and fitness centers. 

Human Resources

Experts predict that a severe flu outbreak could cause absenteeism, due to infection, fear of infection and caring fro family members, to soar to 40 percent during peak weeks.  Develop a leave policy that includes telecommuting, staggered schedules and liberal leave.  Establish protocol for employee/supervisor communication, cross-train your staff in case of long-term absences and test telecommuting plans to ensure they work.   

Services and Supplies

With the loss of staff and on-site personnel, most companies will have to curtail their services.  It may be necessary to implement online-only leasing and online rent payment or drop boxes.  Service calls, trash collection, security, maintenance and move-in/move-out will require another look in a severe outbreak. Fitness centers, pools and community rooms may need to be closed. 

Also, stockpile supplies now.  There were reports of back-ordered N95 masks during the most recent outbreak in  April and May.  

Service Provider Disruption

Anticipate high absenteeism at your suppliers and service providers that might create disruptions in trash removal, utilities, transportation and Internet access.  Seek alternative service providers and outsource options for IT.  Secure generators for power outages.  Consider allowing employees to stay in model units.

Legal Liability

A pandemic flu raises a host of legal issues that must be analyzed in advance to reduce company liability.  Consider liability sources such as resident illness, employee exposure to sick residents, evictions and employee leave scenarios.  Also consider how much risk you want to assume.  Do you direct residents to third-party sources for information on the virus rather than being the source of information; do you advise residents on how to secure protective supplies instead of distributing them yourself?

Recovery  

Disaster planning also means considering what happens after the event.  The human and financial impact on a company and its property operations can be devastating if the recovery process is not included in your overall plan.  

In the days following a disaster, experts recommend companies evaluate their insurance coverage, revisit human resources polices regarding back-to-work issues, identify any need for Employee Assistance Programs or counseling, and evaluate re-opening common areas and services.  Pay special attention to the availability of government aid.  

Finally, evaluate the effectiveness of the plan and modify as needed and practice regularly.

It unknown whether one or more “waves” of activity will re-emerge or the severity of the next wave. However, to proceed without a plan is a risk your company should not take. Firms must remain vigilant and fine-tune their plans, practice them and adjust to unanticipated events.

Author: Jeanne McGlynn Delgado is Vice President of Business and Risk Management Policy for the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, DC.