As of mid-February, over 64,000 cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) have been reported, with wartime measures increasingly becoming the norm throughout mainland China. The reach of the coronavirus, however, is global. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already declared a public health emergency of international concern.
The implication, here, is clear. Public health risk must be factored into your emergency planning protocols to more effectively manage the entire lifecycle of global health incidents as well as spill-over effects to business-as-usual operations and critical infrastructure resilience. But for organizations who haven’t updated their pandemic playbook in years, or don’t have a playbook in place, what’s there to do?
Well, before putting pen to paper on your pandemic response plan, it’s critical to consider the plan’s purpose and scope. What are you hoping to accomplish with the plan? Also, what material will the plan cover? Be as clear as possible in distilling your points.
Remember, your goals and objectives will vary depending on a few factors, like supply-chain exposure, levels of interruption insurance coverage, staff travel history, available resources, and coordination with public health agencies. Possible plan objectives might include the total elimination or significant reduction of an infectious agent, decrease of illness among key stakeholders, continuity of critical activities, and/or reduction of economic impact.
Listing out goals and objectives is important. But don’t forget to make your planning assumptions explicit, as well; a key assumption being that pandemics are highly unpredictable events, so health agency forecasting might be difficult if not impossible.
Indeed, the plan you create will itself provide information on how to respond to a pandemic by outlining roles, responsibilities, and duties, both for your organization’s representatives, as well as those outside agencies involved in managing the incident. The plan should also cover the following elements:
- Protocols to follow
- Team assignments and expectations
- Clear actions to take
- Communication strategy (internal and external)
- Other high-level considerations
- Appendices that tackle specialized issues, such as:
- Business continuity (e.g. business impact analysis)
- Facilities management (e.g. HVAC guidelines, PPE protocols, maintenance and janitorial)
- People management (e.g. employee monitoring and compensation and benefits)
- Draft travel policies
When it comes to prescribing appropriate actions to take, specifically, remember, pandemics are highly fluid incidents. Public health law will often supersede individual company response instructions, orders, and dictates. Meanwhile, local public health departments will remain the controlling authority.
Nevertheless, companies must have a clear action plan to ensure employee safety and productivity, as well as maintain critical business activities. To those ends, your response plan might include actions like setting roles and responsibilities, identifying risks and setting controls, and coming up with a communications strategy.
Let’s dig in further. A reasonable starting place when setting roles and responsibilities is identify your pandemic steering committee members (similar to the Incident Assessment team for ICS practitioners). Document relevant terms of reference; then, dole out roles and responsibilities.
Identifying risks matter, too. Otherwise, your plan will be wildly impractical. How to do risk identification effectively? Start by conducting individual assessments of the probability of occurrence and most plausible impact. Document those results in a risk matrix. Then, based on your findings, identify anticipated challenges and any need for corporate policy or common-practice changes should the pandemic plan be activated.
Also, take appropriate action once you’ve identified challenges to implementing your future controls. But don’t forget to document everything: record the rationale for your decisions and update your policies accordingly.
Don’t neglect communication, either. During an emergency, anxiety and misinformation will be rife. Your strategy should be to ease anxiety and put out relevant communications.
Here, it helps to plan ahead: approve content and create scripts that you can update in the moment. Also, identify your spokespeople. Then, develop, translate, and approve messages and scripts to ensure speedy communication and message consistency across the organization, as well as with external partners and agencies.
Creating your pandemic response plan is only half the battle, though. Preparedness doesn’t end with planning. Training and maintenance matter, too. So, test your plan regularly.
What does scenario testing entail, exactly? First, identify clear exercise objectives before identifying your exercise participants. Of course, that’s not all it takes to prepare for a global health event. To find out what else you need to do to prepare, download our guide to developing a pandemic playbook.
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