Resurgence of Bird Flu Triggers New Look at Preparedness

The rise in new cases of bird flu, including those February at a turkey farm in England, is a sobering reminder that property owners need an emergency plan for dealing with a pandemic flu outbreak, says Lisa Koonin, a nurse practitioner, epidemiologist, and chief of the private and public partners branch of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Bird flu is a serious concern, says Koonin, who recently participated in a BOMA-sponsored seminar on pandemic flu, because viruses like the one in the avian flu outbreak mutate and change so often that they can lead to a pandemic.

That’s true, says Dr. Eric Toner, senior associate at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pittsburgh, who’s studied bird flu for three years, but he warns against panic. “I’ve talked to a number of businesses worried about their facilities,” he says, “and I think they’re more concerned than they need to be.” For the virus to be a serious threat to humans, it would first have to become a disease passed from person to person rather than bird to bird. That may never happen.

But if it does, warns Koonin, property owners must be prepared. “They won’t be able to do planning on the spot,” she says. “They won’t have the time. When a pandemic is announced, it’s likely to be in every community within weeks. That planning has to start now.”

An important element of a preparedness plan is social distancing, says Koonin. During a pandemic, the virus is spread through coughing and sneezing when another person is nearby. Social distancing involves keeping people three to six feet apart in the workplace, having employees telecommute or work from home, and even staggering work hours to minimize human-to-human contact.

“Make sure people who are sick with flu stay away from well people,” adds Koonin. “We might also see people who live in a household with a sick person stay home for a period of time. Building owners need to plan now how they’ll deal with those employee absences.”

There’s also talk of employers or building managers screening people for visible signs of illness or flu, even taking the temperature of people who enter their premises, says Peter A. Susser, an attorney with Littler Mendelson, P.C., in Washington, D.C. Whether they have the right to implement such measures depends on employment contracts or leases that govern the parties’ relationship. “Traditional legal standards may bend in a time of public health crisis, and it’s hard to predict how that would fall,” says Susser.

Legal concerns aside, screening may not be workable or even helpful. “With influenza, sometimes people are actually sick and shedding the virus before they know it,” says Koonin. “Or they may have a mild case but are still infectious. It’s impossible to screen everyone for illness.”

Toner says the possibility of quarantining entire commercial buildings is remote. “We’ve never seen the closing of office buildings in an influenza outbreak, even one as severe as this,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense given what we know about how influenza spreads. These viruses aren’t particularly hearty, and there’s little evidence one can get sick picking it up from a surface.”

For the same reasons, Toner doesn’t put much stock in the idea of landlords doing deep cleaning to scrub buildings of the virus. “Other than using what they normally clean with,” he says, “there’s no scientific basis for doing that.” Koonin agrees, as long as the cleaning materials are registered by Environmental Protection Agency for viruses. However, maintenance crews should probably clean more often, she says, focusing on heavy-contact areas such as handrails, elevator buttons, and computer keyboards.

“Building owners might have to educate their employees and tenants about what’s known and not known,” adds Toner. “I didn’t advocate appeasing people, like cleaning when it’s not necessary. It’s better to give them reliable sources of information.”

Finally, make sure your leases allow you to implement the measures in your emergency plan, advises Tara K. Gorman, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig in Washington, D.C. She includes in leases a clause that allows landlords the absolute right to limit or prohibit access to their buildings, without rent abatement, in response to health and security threats.

“Landlords aren’t going to do that on a whim,” says Gorman, “because their business is to provide a healthy and safe place for their tenants. But if there’s something as scary as this sounds and you need to restrict access to your building, you need that authority.”

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