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American Forces Press Service

Pentagon Official Shares Lessons of Simulated Flu Outbreak

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 30, 2007 – A simulated flu outbreak exercise at the Pentagon this month was a “great success” and taught the department lessons about functioning with an ailing work force, the Defense Department's top personnel and readiness official said yesterday.

Pandemic flu is a fast-spreading infectious disease that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness that could sicken or kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people, according to the U.S. government’s pandemic flu Web site. To prepare portions of the Defense Department for a possible mass outbreak, some 1,000 Pentagon employees participated in an exercise Aug. 14-15.

“The goal was to test how well we could operate should there be an event like pandemic flu,” said David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

“Healthy” exercise participants in the building wore masks over their faces and maintained six-foot barriers from coworkers while working through a script of challenging tasks. Personnel members deemed “infected” worked from home.

The overarching lesson learned from the 1918 flu epidemic, which killed more than a half million Americans, is that infected employees should stay home, said Chu, who noted that convincing people to remain home during work likely would be the most difficult challenge.

“This is not our work ethos. Our work ethos is ‘I can work as long as I’m still breathing,’” he said. “Part of our post-exercise discussion was how do you get people to realize you ain’t doing us a favor by coming in?

“This is going to be a real challenge for some of our senior leaders, who are accustomed to showing up, who are accustomed to being there,” he continued.

During the exercise, department directors “killed” or “incapacitated” by the simulated flu outbreak remained away from the office. This focused the department’s attention on the importance of maintaining up-to-date organization charts that indicate orders of succession and delegations of authority.

Chu said the simulation underscored the need for enhanced technology. “We are going to have to invest more in our information technology infrastructure if we’re going to succeed long-term,” Chu said. “We’ll have to be sure people have a government-issued computer. … That’s an expense.”

Technical concerns include the need to maintain sufficient bandwidth for personnel working from home, and adjusting the Pentagon’s firewall to allow at-home users access to department information, he said.

Chu said the department will address procedures in dealing with employees who become sick while at work. He noted the department will consider creating a temporary quarantine and treatment center for those affected by the outbreak in the office, and said the department might develop transportation plans to get people safely home.

“For example, what if I come down sick at my desk?” he said. “Now in the exercise -- since I wasn’t really sick -- I could drive home. But in real life, I might be too sick to drive home. The last thing you want to do is put me on the Metro (subway system) and infect everybody else. So what are you going to do? And that’s one of the issues our team is now exploring.”

As a result of the experiment, Chu said, the department has identified key issues to address. He praised the attitude of the participants who made it possible.

“I was very pleased with the spirit of our people,” he said. “They understood this was serious, this was important, they needed to try this out.”

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