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pandemic plan

A pandemic plan is a documented strategy for how an organization plans to provide essential services when there is a widespread outbreak of an infectious disease. When a pandemic spreads and a high percentage of a company's employees are sick at the same time, it can negatively affect the company's ability to carry out essential services. Anticipating the possibility of a pandemic should be part of every organization's plan to ensure business continuity.

Pandemic plans document the guiding principles an organization will follow in the event of a pandemic. In a small organization, a pandemic plan could be as simple as sending an email that tells employees when they should stay home. In a large organization, the plan should include test exercises to help managers understand the impact a staff absentee rate of 40% would have on operations. 

At a minimum, every pandemic plan should have at least two parts: it should explain how the organization will deal with sustained periods of employee absenteeism and specify measures for "non-pharmaceutical intervention," which means, essentially, how the business plans to minimize the risk of contagion among employees.

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Download our pandemic plan template for the enterprise.

Download our pandemic plan checklist for SMBs.

Download our sample communication email for employees.

Pandemic planning in the news

Pandemic planning received renewed global attention with the emergence and spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in late 2019. The virus belongs to a family of viruses named for the crown-like spikes on their surfaces. As with epidemics and pandemics throughout history, the COVID-19 outbreak has raised healthcare, business and governmental policy questions that affect the world's economy.

When a pandemic simultaneously affects multiple countries for an extended period of time, the fallout can significantly impact supply chains and the global economy. Typically, consumer demand for healthcare products related to infection control and non-perishable food stuffs increases dramatically during the early days of a pandemic, and shoppers may choose home delivery or drive-through services to reduce the risk of person-to-person contact.

Why should a business plan ahead for a pandemic?

Although planning can be time-consuming, the price of not having robust preparedness programs in place can be even more costly. Plans require a multi-layered approach conducted over an extended period of time. To be effective, the plan should be a living document that is reviewed and updated on a regular basis. 

The following is a suggested sequence of plan development activities:

  • Obtain copies of existing business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans.
  • Establish a pandemic recovery team (PRT) to coordinate pandemic preparedness.
  • Establish a pandemic plan glossary to ensure the language in your crisis communication plan is used correctly and consistently. 
  • Have the PRT meet with human resources, senior management and internal technology groups, as well as business continuity and emergency response teams to establish the scope of the plan.
  • Brief business units as well as senior management on these meetings so they are fully informed.
  • Gather all relevant employee information, including contact information and an inventory of skills.
  • Gather all relevant business process information, focusing on critical activities that must be maintained.
  • Gather information about the technology infrastructure that supports these processes.
  • Communicate pandemic crisis action plan to employees and business partners. 
  • Conducting "firedrill" exercises to identify potential problems with the plan. 

What’s included in a pandemic plan?

A pandemic plan should take into consideration potential shortages of raw materials and supplies and how, if possible, the business will obtain enough materials to keep the business running at an acceptable level. The U.S. government recommends that all businesses have continuity plans stipulating how they would keep their business running with high absenteeism and shortages -- and what they will do if forced to reduce production or limit work to essential services.

We invite you to download and print out the pandemic preparedness checklist below to help your company evaluate the short- and long-term impact of a pandemic.  

Pandemic preparedness checklist

Evaluate business impact



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Identify a pandemic coordinator and/or team and define their responsibilities.




Identify essential employees and critical inputs necessary to maintain business operations.

Estimate the impact on business-related domestic and international travel.




Establish plans to deal with a significant increased or decreased demand for products/services.




Develop an emergency communication plan.

Implement exercises/drills to test the pandemic plan.

Revise pandemic plan on a regular basis.

Evaluate employee and customer impact

Reduce the risk of infection by encouraging and tracking employee vaccinations.




Set criteria for when employees should work remotely. 

Ensure employees know about available healthcare services.




Decide how to deal with high absentee rates.




Implement policy

Define policies for employee sick-leave.




Define policy for working remotely.

Establish policies to prevent infection in the workplace.




Identify the  triggers for activating and ending the pandemic plan.




Allocate resources

Provide infection control supplies at all business locations.




Confirm the availability of medical consultation and advice for emergency response.

Optimize IT infrastructures to support telecommuting and remote customer access.




Communicate with employees

Develop and distribute information and materials covering pandemic fundamentals.




Develop platforms and channels for communicating pandemic status and actions to employees, suppliers, customers and vendors.




Anticipate misinformation and plan the communication strategy accordingly.




Communicate with external organizations

Collaborate with insurers, health plans and major local healthcare facilities as well as federal, state and local public health agencies and emergency responders to understand their capabilities and plans.




Communicate with local and state health agencies and emergency responders to identify ways in which the organization can help the community during the pandemic.




Share pandemic planning best practices with other business and associations in the community to improve overall response efforts.




Pandemics and the supply chain

A worldwide influenza pandemic could have a major effect on travel, trade, tourism, food consumption and eventually, investment and financial markets. In a severe outbreak, employees may stay home because they are sick, because family members are sick, because schools or day care centers are closed or because they are simply afraid to come to work and be exposed to someone who is sick. When this happens, product shipments from affected geographic areas may be delayed -- or even cancelled if absenteeism levels are high enough.

Communication is an important part of pandemic planning. To keep the economy moving, businesses should alert customers when supply chain disruptions are expected to lead to short-term product delays. Communication plans should also address alternative procedures for pickups/deliveries to suppliers and customers.Having a plan in place to mitigate the risk of a supply chain breakdown can make the difference between simply staying in business during a pandemic and actually staying profitable during an outbreak of communicable disease. One of the first things an organization should do when writing a plan is to document the business’s processes and procedures and specify how essential services could be provided by alternate suppliers during a period of significant, sustained absenteeism.

The plan should also address how the business will cross-train employees to make the best use of existing systems with a reduced workforce. Training employees ahead of time on the use of essential systems and applications is essential. Brainstorming ways to use robots, drones and artificial intelligence technology to reduce human interaction can also be helpful.

To ensure that cybersecurity management activities can be maintained and, if necessary, recovered and restarted quickly, cybersecurity operating procedures should be documented and kept current. Although some experts maintain that a pandemic is unlikely to directly affect cybersecurity technologies and networks, if the individuals responsible for cybersecurity -- and other critical business functions -- get sick, they may be unable to perform their duties in the event of an outbreak.

What causes a pandemic?

The word “pandemic” comes from the Greek “pandemos,” meaning pertaining to all people. Pandemics are usually caused by an infectious agent that is newly capable of spreading rapidly. The likelihood of new diseases spreading quickly has grown with increased travel and mobility. Some healthcare professionals predict that antibiotic resistance could raise the risk for new types of disease.

Unlike seasonal influenza measures, which can be planned for, the rapid spread of a pandemic influenza typically catches people by surprise. Because the virus strain is so new, the general population is likely to have little or no immunity. Although a new virus typically does not spread between species, if it mutates, it may start to spread easily and result in a pandemic that affects both people and animals. 

What to do during a pandemic?

According to Ready, a government sponsored public service campaign in the United States, when there is a pandemic, people should take the following actions:

  • Avoid close contact.
  • Wash hands often.
  • Cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth. 
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Remain physically active.
  • Manage stress.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Eat nutritious food.

Pandemic vs. Epidemic

An epidemic refers to a sudden surge in the number of instances of a disease, above that which is typical in a population. Epidemics escalate into pandemics when diseases spread over several countries or continents and affect a larger number of people. When a viral infection becomes widespread in several countries at the same time, it can become a pandemic.

Pandemics are usually associated with influenza, but throughout history, the term has also been used to describe widespread outbreaks of cholera, bubonic plague and smallpox.

There may be a fine line distinguishing an epidemic from a pandemic. For example, the Ebola virus, which killed thousands of people from 2013 to 2016 in West Africa, was considered an epidemic because it was confined to one region.

Another example of an outbreak that did not progress to pandemic proportions is the 2003 discovery of SARS, a type of coronavirus dubbed SARS-CoV. National and international health authorities, such as the World Health Organization, acted quickly to slow and eventually end localized SARS epidemics before they could become a pandemic, but the disease has not been eradicated.

Additionally, cases of avian influenza -- or bird flu -- in 2004 and 2005 did not reach pandemic status because the virus did not cause sustained and efficient human-to-human transmission. The disease was reportedly transmitted from bird to human, but there were few -- if any -- cases of proven human-to-human transmission.

History of Pandemics

Pandemics have occurred throughout history. Here is a partial list:

  • From 2005 to 2012, the HIV/AIDS pandemic peaked. New treatments have made HIV more manageable.
  • In 1968, a category 2 Flu pandemic sometimes referred to as “the Hong Kong Flu” was caused by the H3N2 strain of the Influenza A virus, a genetic offshoot of the H2N2 subtype. More than a million people died during this pandemic.
  • From 1956 to 1958, the Asian Flu, a pandemic outbreak of Influenza A of the H2N2 subtype, spread from China to Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States. The World Health Organization estimates the death toll from this pandemic at approximately 2 million; 69,800 of those in the United States.
  • From 1918 to 1920, a flu pandemic infected more than a third of the world’s population and resulted in the deaths of 20 million to 50 million people. This influenza pandemic -- unlike previous influenza outbreaks -- resulted in the deaths of healthy young adults, while leaving children and those with weaker immune systems still alive.
  • From 1910 to 1911, the Sixth Cholera Pandemic originated in India and spread to the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia. American health authorities learned from this pandemic, which was the last American outbreak of Cholera. The death toll from this outbreak was more than 800,000.
  • From 1889 to 1890, a flu pandemic killed more than a million people. The first cases appeared in Central Asia, Northwestern Canada and Greenland.
  • From 1852 to 1860, the Third Cholera Pandemic originated in India, spreading from the Ganges River Delta to Asia, Europe, North America and Africa; resulting in more than a million deaths. 
  • From 1346 to 1353, the Black Death caused by the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe, Africa and Asia, with an estimated death toll between 75 and 200 million people. 
  • From 541 to 542, the Plague of Justinian was an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague that afflicted the Byzantine Empire and Mediterranean port cities and resulted in up to 25 million deaths. 
This was last updated in March 2020

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