Public health specialists and the government are pressuring businesses to prepare for a worldwide outbreak of the bird flu or some other super-strain of influenza, a crisis that could bankrupt many companies if their workers are too sick or scared to show up and their supply chains disappear.
The concern isn't just because of economics, but because many companies provide products and services that people literally can't live without, explained Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, who advises the government.
"Automobiles, jewelry and electronics will not be big ticket items" during the next flu pandemic, Osterholm notes. "We still have to feed people. How do we assure we have heat, fuel oil, electricity?"
In the new survey of some of the nation's largest businesses, two-thirds said their companies were inadequately prepared to protect themselves during a pandemic. Demonstrating a surprising fatalism, 39 percent believed there wasn't much they could do.
The results also raise public health concerns. When asked if they would waive sick-leave restrictions to encourage workers with flu symptoms to stay home, 63 percent of the companies were undecided and 10 percent said they would not.
That contradicts the federal government's stance that having the potentially contagious stay home from work or school could prove key to stemming a pandemic.
"Corporate America is like everybody — they read it and see it on television but they really can't completely digest it," former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said of the pandemic threat.
His new industry think tank, part of Deloitte & Touche USA, sponsored the survey, to be released Friday at a closed-door meeting bringing about 25 corporations together with health specialists.
Next week, the government will release a checklist of pandemic preparations companies should take.
Among them: "That people have contingency plans that could accommodate between 10 and 20 percent of their work force being out at any given time for as much as two to four weeks," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt told The Associated Press.