May 3, 2006

USDA prepares human bird flu plan

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. government department that
would be heavily impacted by a bird flu pandemic has developed
a plan to keep its own operations going in case of an outbreak
of the virus.

As part of government-wide effort among various agencies to
prepare for a flu outbreak, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
has been crafting its own operation plan for the department's
programs, services and 100,000 employees spanning nearly 30,000
facilities, a USDA official said. The department expects to
release final details in June.

USDA's human response plan for the H5N1 virus will be
largely based on input from hundreds of employees in the field
who would be responsible for quickly implementing the
preparedness plan in their area.

Local directors could use staggered work shifts, order the
closure of day-care and cafeterias to reduce the chance of H5N1
spreading and, when possible, allow employees to work at home,
said Peter Thomas, USDA's human pandemic coordinator. They also
could turn to a back-up list of retired employees or
contractors to perform tasks when regular USDA staff are

"I've got to be honest with you, this can't be 100
percent," Thomas told Reuters in an interview on the
department's proposal. "What we're trying to plan for is a
worst-case scenario and have the plan in place."

He said that while some departmental business may be barely
affected in some regions, other areas could see key functions
dramatically curtailed or halted, including meat inspections
and grain shipments, due to human impact from bird flu.

"It's a very big task," said Thomas, who added the
department's emergency plan would cover everything from food
stamps and school lunches to meat and grain inspections.

The U.S. government released on Wednesday a broader
pandemic response plan that defines specific tasks for each
federal government agency to help minimize disruptions. The
Bush administration assumes that 40 percent of the nation's
work force would be absent at the peak of a pandemic.


Critics said the government still has not done enough to
address the impact businesses may face from a pandemic.

"I haven't seen a credible plan on business continuity,"
said one agribusiness official, who compared the likely impact
of a pandemic with the scene on Monday when meatpackers closed
shop because workers wanted to take part in immigration

"Telecommuting is fine if you're a bureaucrat. You can't
telecommute to a hands-on job like meat inspection."

There are approximately 7,600 federal inspection program
personnel assigned to about 6,000 meat, poultry and egg
products plants in the United States.

In the next few weeks, the department will be meeting with
employees from its local offices to see how well the measures
in its draft plan compare with the real-life work conditions.

This is one of the "different things you can have in a tool
box for how to respond to this and then getting that out to the
lowest decision-maker level possible," said Ed Loyd, a USDA
spokesman. "It certainly is a very comprehensive effort that
gets a lot of people involved."

A pandemic from bird flu would significantly affect all
sectors of industry, energy and transportation. The World Bank
has estimated a pandemic lasting a year could cost the global
economy up to $800 billion.

The latest bird flu strain is known to have killed 113
people and forced more than 200 million birds worldwide to be
destroyed. H5N1 has remained largely an infection of birds as
it has spread through Asia, Europe and parts of Africa at an
ever-faster rate in recent months.

President Bush released an initial $7.1 billion bird flu
plan last November to prepare for a pandemic, but Congress
approved just half of the total.

(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott)