Should Utilities Worry About the Swine Flu?

As of 10 a.m. Monday, April 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is actively investigating human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection, more commonly called swine flu, in the United States.

There are 20 confirmed cases in America: seven in California, two in Kansas, eight in New York, one in Ohio and two in Texas. More confirmations are expected as the CDC and state and federal officials expand their investigation.

Investigations are ongoing to determine the source of the infection and whether additional people have been infected with swine influenza viruses. CDC is working very closely with officials in states where human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) have been identified, as well as with health officials in Mexico, Canada and the World Health Organization.

While the term “pandemic” is not an official declaration from the CDC, it is a term getting plenty of press. When pandemics do occur, they often disrupt more than hospitals and doctors offices. As they increase in severity, absenteeism can occur across the span of necessary utilities, including in the production and distribution of power.

The CDC does have a plan in place for the vaccine allocation in case a pandemic does occur and disrupt the process of delivering electricity. But, many entities will not be ready, according to Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota.

“There’s a whole lot of other areas that we have real problems with, whether it’s pharmaceutical drugs, food supply–any number of things are going to be severely challenged during the next pandemic, even if it’s only a moderate pandemic because it’s overlaid for the first time in human history on a global, just-in-time economy,” Osterholm said. “Even for you today, many of the things that you’ll use–that you just take for granted in your life–come from some distant shore and it just gets to you in time. ” You don’t realize when you go buy that (thing) at the store that (it) hasn’t been sitting around in a warehouse somewhere. That hasn’t been on the shelf for a long time.”

Enter utilities. Osterholm explained why it is crucial that utilities plan for the next pandemic, which may be the swine flu.

“First of all, it’s going to happen. Second of all is electricity’s obviously an extremely critical part of our basic infrastructure and response mechanism. ” We typically take electricity for granted,” he said.

Online Editor John Powers talked about potential flu pandemics with Dr. Osterholm for a recent Currents podcast. You can listen to all the details here.

Or, you can read his article in the March/April 2009 issue of Electric Light and Power available online here.

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