“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” the experts said in their presentations at the pandemic workshop at this year’s National Restaurant Show here last weekend.
Furthermore, four experts urged the foodservice supply chain from manufacturers to distributors to operators to begin preparing for such an eventuality now.
Only planning and preparation will contribute to the likelihood of reducing the number of illnesses and deaths as well as ensuring that businesses will survive to continue feeding the population, they said.
Only planning and preparation will help humanity and businesses.
Furthermore, they said, there is a confluence of viral elements in several places around the world which can evolve into a pandemic. They pointed out that the next pandemic could result from the current H5N1 avian influenza virus or another one.
However, the virus that is currently being spread by migrating flocks of wild and domestic birds is thus far only affecting poultry around the world. Some humans that live or work in close proximity to them have contracted the illness and a couple of hundred have died. What governments, medical officials, epidemiologists and others fear is that the current or yet undiscovered virus that begins in animals can mutate to the point where the illness is easily transmitted among humans.
Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, assistant secretary for the private sector office at the Department of Homeland Security, said when the pandemic develops in the United States officials estimate that 30% of the population will contract the disease, half of the country will require outpatient treatment, nearly 10 million will be hospitalized and 2 million will die. Some 30-50% of the workplaces will be left vacant, they concurred.
As a result, Martinez-Fonts and his co-panelists, Michele Samarya-Timm, food safety and protection technical chairperson, Franklin Township Health Department, Somerset, NJ; Petra Hochmuth, principal microbiologist with Ecolab; and moderator Dr. Donna Garren, vice president, Health and Safety Regulatory Affairs with the NRA, urged the foodservice supply chain to begin preparing now for the pandemic.
They advised that preparations should be based on the probability that society as we know it will be virtually shut down while people will simultaneously continue to demand food and services.
For example, the principle of social distancing, which literally means staying as far as possible from other humans, will be the rule of the day. Government analysis shows that children in schools stay within four feet of each other. In hospitals, the distance between people is 7.8 ft. In the workplace, the space is 11.7 ft., while in the home it grows to 16.2 ft.
Therefore, the experts said, many people will be urged to stay at home at least to take care of their children who will not be attending schools or the elderly.
Martinez-Fonts pointed out that during the 1918 pandemic, many farsighted local officials banned public gatherings such as athletics, theaters, circuses, schools and churches (all of which require foodservice). In the case of St. Louis, he said, this had a great effect on reducing mortality.
Businesses, such as the very people-oriented foodservice industry, which has been designated by the government as one of several critical infrastructures that will be safeguarded, needs to develop plans for maintaining the delivery of goods in an environment where patrons may be afraid to eat out and workers may not want to come to work.
Foodservice will be further impacted because of its heavy dependency on trucks. In case of a pandemic, the Federal government will have the right to commandeer trucks and reroute food to areas of the country where it is more needed. Not to mention intermittent deliveries due to lack of fuel or electrical brownouts.
Anti-viral medication to treat patients is not expected to be developed until six months after the pandemic strikes due to the lack of knowledge about the virus. Today’s medication may be useless later, they said.
“We just don’t have better drugs,” Martinez-Fonts flatly declared.
As trite as it sounds, Samarya-Timm and Hochmuth said the best protection against contracting the illness and spreading it is by being aware of your surroundings and washing hands – a process should involve warm water, soap and last up to 20 seconds.
The bottom-line goal of federal and local officials as well as companies’ preparedness efforts is to ensure the continuity of society and businesses, limit deaths and illnesses, and reduce disruptions.
The following are good websites for advice:
IFDA’s Pandemic Plan