Thursday, January 11, 2007

Pandemic preparedness

The Advocate carries a story about a pandemic flu seminar at the Petroleum Club yesterday. The gist was that there is no vaccine for the strains the epidemologists are most worried about and that more general antivirals are of limited use and availability.

The question: What to do if a flu epidemic hits?

The advice of the smart guys: Stay home.

The big hole in this "plan," of course, is that people have to go to work (and school, too, I'd think). Since a lot of the larger institutions appear to have plans in place the emphasis was on getting businesses to "prepare."

For those that can, the answer will be to work from home. It won't be a week-long vaction. A flu epidemic will come in waves, each lasting 6 weeks are so. The economic loss will be huge and the more people can continue to work from home the better.

Schools will likely close. Some parents will simply have to stay home with children. Some businesses will shut down as well or voluntarily let their employees stay home. In an extreme situation there might even be forced closures.

Broadband connections will be the best tool to use to keep at least a portion of the population productive. Trouble is, like vaccines and antivirals, there won't be enough of it to go around unless we plan.

In Lafayette, with any luck, we are likely to have better tools than in most places. Mike has written about this before. An LUS fiber network will be capacious enough to bear the traffic and fast enough to make really useful virtual meeting places like video chatrooms practical. A suggestion: LUS could develop a plan that supports "telecommuting." In a plan like that the company would pay some portion of the employee's internet bill on a continuing basis. Participating corporations would set up their own VPNs (virtual private networks) to support regular telecommuters and folks who have to stay home with something contagious or with sick kids or family. During a declared emergency every company employee with a connection could be automatically switched in to the network and run at higher speeds. If set up beforehand turning everything on would be a mere flick of the software switch.

Schools could do something very similar. The difference is that schools will almost certainly be closed down completely and serving that population will mean serving some students who don't have an LUS connection. Ubiquity--universal availability--is a hard question to address, especially during an emergency of this nature when rolling trucks to hook up new customers will be out of the question. This is the point at which having a citywide WiFi/WiMax system in place begins to seem like public safety issue. You can sign up for such a system from your front porch, or, during a real emergency, the network could simply be opened up to all citizens. With the coming of 100 dollar wifi-capable laptops connecting a whole population of students in this way might not be so fantastic. It's not hard to imagine staggered two one-hour sessions a day for the little ones with parental at-home help. Assignments and projects could be widely used for older kids with a lot of online one-on-one help.

All of that would take planning. A lot of it. But at least Lafayette, with any luck, we will have the tools to begin that planning.

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