Swine flu summit aims to "keep the world working" during pandemic

Julie Louise Gerberding, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns about the dangers of H1N1
Tim Rummelhoff

On the fourth floor of the Marriot in downtown Minneapolis, hundreds gather in a conference room. They wear tailored suits wrinkled from travel, ties with gold chains, and watches worth enough to pay most people's rent. They're a collection of business leaders from the largest corporations in the United States, and they're here to learn how to cope with swine flu.

In front of them stands Julie Louise Gerberding, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a butter-colored top, a fierce gray streak running through her black hair, she asks the assembled power brokers a provocative question:

"Is this whole thing a hoax?"

The audience focuses in. The issue is critical to their bottom line.

Gerberding informs them that the White House predicted that 90,000 deaths could occur from the swine flu. She reminds them that the one element missing in all the talk is a crystal ball.

"So what do we know?" she asks.

She starts with the good news: The virus is stable. Vaccines appear to work. The chances for fast mutation are low.

Nonetheless, the flu could be as deadly as the 1918 pandemic. Again, no one will know until months and years down the road, but we do know that H1N1 is a hybrid of the same bug that hit in 1918, referred to as the Spanish flu.

As Gerberding continues, a woman in back of the room pulls a bottle of hand sanitizer from her bag. She squirts a large gob into her palms and begins to rub them together. The sweet smell of congealed alcohol fills the air.

Gerberding announces that the one thing we do know about pandemics is that there are no reliable predictors of how they will behave. No two are the same.

The audience claps their germ-free hands together. The host of the event, Michael Osterholm, a world-renowned infectious-disease hunter, takes the stage. No stranger to public speaking, Osterholm comfortably segues into the topic of the summit: Keeping the World Working During the H1N1 Pandemic. He tells the audience that the difficult part is the number of conflicting reports. He pulls up a slide that shows two Reuters articles, one sounding alarms, the other silencing them.

"There is truth in both," he says.

Osterholm concludes by saying this pandemic may be largely about absenteeism, but that each company should employ a battlefield mentality and anticipate the threat.

For the next two days, the summit attendees are hit again and again with information about pandemics. They attend a series of small-group sessions on H1N1 preparedness, learning ways to partner with other entities, how world-leading companies like Mattel and 3M dealt with the early days of H1N1, and how they can keep the supply chain running.

Among the attendees is Angy Owen of Fairview Health Services, a local company that has a partnership with the U of M to provide care. One of her main concerns is communication about the pandemic. While Fairview keeps employees informed through emails, many are deleted unread.

"What do you do?" asks Owen.

Another attendee, "Carol," who asked that her name not be used, says that many in her manufacturing company are scared about what will happen when the office has its first case of swine flu.

"It could cause the entire office to panic," she says.

Recently, Eastview Elementary School in Lakeville experienced the paranoia surrounding the virus when their absentee rate exploded from 7 to 28 percent over the course of one weekend. Although 175 students stayed home sick, only 5 had confirmed cases of H1N1.

Across Minnesota there have been 279 hospitalized cases of H1N1, with three deaths, yet judging from the fear, one would expect half the population to have poured into emergency rooms with the flu.

During the final presentation, only a handful of people remain. The majority of the bottles of free hand sanitizer have been pocketed.

At the very back of the room sits Alan Weikert, who was sent by the W.L. Gore Company in Newark, New Jersey, makers of Gore-Tex, among other products. A stout man with a hiker's build, Weikert felt that while the conference was good, people were also reluctant to open up.

"Some of the best ways to learn about how to deal with pandemics preparedness is to see a company's dirty laundry," he says. "But they were scared to talk because each group session was videotaped."

With that, Weikert went on his way. Over his shoulder, a large projection screen bore the quote: "Pandemic influenza is the mother of all incidents." 

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