King County Executive Ron Sims urged business leaders yesterday to begin preparing now for a flu epidemic that could put a third of the...

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King County Executive Ron Sims urged business leaders yesterday to begin preparing now for a flu epidemic that could put a third of the local work force out of commission.

About 60 business leaders attended the forum at Safeco Field, including representatives from Starbucks, Boeing and QFC. Sims and local public-health officials urged them to mobilize around the potential threat, saying the local economy could be devastated without the proper planning.

“We have to act now, because the experts tell us the hour is growing late,” Sims said.

Public-health officials have been on high alert about the possibility of a flu pandemic since an avian-flu virus started spreading through Asia, Russia and now Eastern Europe. Doctors worry that if the virus were to mutate into a form that could be passed from human to human, it would quickly spread worldwide.

Locally, such a flu epidemic could infect as many as 1.2 million people in the first six weeks, officials with Public Health — Seattle & King County said. More than 57,000 residents could be hospitalized and about 2,700 could die.

“This is a mass-casualty situation that could last for weeks,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, director of communicable-disease control for Public Health. “No one is prepared for this.”

So health officials said they need everyone ready to mobilize. The agency is already working with hospitals, schools and leaders in immigrant communities.

Annual Flu Versus Pandemic Flu

ANNUAL FLU: Occurs every year. Affects 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population. Globally, kills 500,000 to 1 million people each year; 36,000 to 40,000 in the United States. Most people recover in a week or two. Vaccination is effective because the virus strain can be fairly reliably predicted.

PANDEMIC FLU: Occurs three to four times a century. Experts predict an infection rate of 25 to 50 percent of the population. Usually associated with a higher severity of illness and a higher risk of death. Producing an effective vaccine could take six months after the onset of the epidemic.

ALSO: Public Health — Seattle & King County offers free training sessions for businesses on coping during crisis. For more information, call 206-296-4313.

Source: Trust for America’s Health

Yesterday’s forum was the county’s first formal outreach to the business community as a group. It’s hoped that a coalition of business leaders would develop a strategy for how the local economy would function during such an epidemic.

Yesterday’s forum laid out three critical areas for business leaders: keeping operations running, coping with staffing needs, and getting important messages to employees. Topics ranged from grief counseling and sick-leave policies to the direct deposits of paychecks during a crisis.

“Focus on your people,” said John Powers, president and CEO of enterpriseSeattle, formerly called the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County. “They’re the most important capital in any business.”

Each business will have to decide which policies to change, and how much, in the event of a pandemic. But public-health officials suggested several strategies that could help slow the spread of disease, from telecommuting to job sharing. Again and again, they stressed the need to plan ahead: provide employees with computers to work from home, for example, or train them to take on the work of someone who is sick.

Businesses would have to determine what kinds of financial sacrifices or changes they would need to make.

They also talked about basic precautions, such as sending staff home as soon as they show symptoms. Marianne Short, vice president of human resources for the Seattle Mariners, said she has a reputation now for pushing sick people out of the office.

It takes some convincing, she said, because most workers consider it a sign of loyalty and professionalism to stay on the job.

“Our culture was: I’m here at work, and I’m sick, and aren’t I great?” Short said. “We had to create a whole new culture.”