US feds, chems, other industries set for new flu outbreak

10 July 2009 18:28  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US chemicals sector and other critical industries are working closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and federal health agencies in anticipation of a renewed outbreak of swine flu in the 2009 fourth quarter, officials said on Friday.

The DHS joined with top officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Education and White House homeland security advisor John Brennan in a meeting with representatives of the 50 states to map plans for what many think will be a more severe outbreak of the H1N1 virus when the North American influenza season begins on 1 October.

“Over the course of coming weeks and months, we will move aggressively to prepare the nation for the possibility of a more severe outbreak of the H1N1 virus,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

As of Friday, the US had recorded 37,246 cases of swine flu infection, including 211 fatalities nationwide.  Those US totals are part of the nearly 95,000 H1N1 cases recorded thus far worldwide, including 429 fatalities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Those infections and fatalities are the result of the influenza outbreak that began in April this year.

US health officials are worried because influenza outbreaks at the onset of the northern hemisphere winter season (generally the fourth quarter) usually are much more severe than springtime (second quarter) epidemics.

For the US chemicals industry and other crucial infrastructure sectors, the challenge is to keep essential production facilities operating at normal or near normal capacity even if an epidemic causes sharp reductions in available personnel.

The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA) said that since the middle of June it and other member organizations of the Chemical Sector Coordinating Council (CSCC) have participated in at least two conference calls with the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) to get epidemic planning information.

The CSCC is comprised of chemical sector companies and trade groups and was established by the DHS after the 2001 terrorist attacks to coordinate security efforts.  The chemicals council is one of 18 such industry-specific advisory groups.

SOCMA said it expects that other teleconferences will be held with the CDC and DHS as the 1 October flu season draws near, but that those conferences are not yet scheduled.

Scott Jensen, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), said the weekly teleconferences with DHS and other federal agencies that characterized the April onset of the H1N1 epidemic have not yet been re-established but may resume as the flu season develops.

“They’ll want to be sure that everyone is taking preventive measures,” Jensen said.

For the chemicals industry, those measures are similar to preparations typically made in anticipation of hurricane strikes. 

Employees who can work from home are identified and given contingency plans and included in alert messages, and plant operators assemble so-called ride-out crews - that is, teams of essential employees needed to stay on-site to keep a facility at minimum operational levels.

The multi-agency federal task force on H1N1 influenza has created a special website that provides information from DHS and other sources on precautions and preventive measures.

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