I recently participated on a webinar panel sponsored by Everbridge and RSA with participants from the medical, transportation and emergency management disciplines where we discussed the Ebola outbreak and impacts to organizations. Each expert had fascinating information to report and there were excellent questions by the 550 person audience on the webinar.
So, what do we know about Ebola? Ebola is a rare and deadly disease caused by infection with a strain of Ebola virus. The 2014 Ebola epidemic is the largest in history, affecting over 10,000 people in multiple West African countries. Ebola is spread through direct contact with blood and body fluids of a person already showing symptoms, but is not spread through the air, water, food, or mosquitoes. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides a data sheet here WHO | Ebola virus disease that is very informative.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the risk of an Ebola outbreak affecting multiple people in the U.S. is very low. The CDC has tried to establish a national standard, recommending that only people who had direct contact with Ebola patients without any protective gear submit to isolation at home for 21 days, the maximum period for symptoms to develop. However, a month after the first confirmed case of Ebola in the U.S., state and local health authorities across the country have imposed a hodgepodge of often conflicting rules. Some states, such as New York and New Jersey, have gone as far as quarantining all healthy people returning from working with Ebola patients in West Africa. In Minnesota, people being monitored by the state’s health department are banned from going on trips on public transit that last longer than three hours. Others, such as Virginia and Maryland, said they will monitor returning healthcare workers and only quarantine those who had unprotected contact with patients.
The international community is also responding. For example, North Korea announced it will quarantine foreigners for 21 days over fears of the spread of the Ebola virus, even though no cases of the disease have been reported in the country, or anywhere in Asia, and very few foreigners are allowed to enter. The Australian government announced that it was canceling non-permanent or temporary visas held by people from the affected countries who were not yet traveling, and that new visa applications would not be processed. If the outbreak is not controlled soon it may continue to have affects on other regions such as Europe, where we are seeing some uncertainty and unrest.
The question is, how does this affect your organization currently or in the near future? Is it affecting third parties you do business with, or key customers? Looking ahead and putting contingency plans in place relative to the risk to your organization is a smart move. A good place to start is to dust off those pandemic plans you Business Continuity folks probably compiled a few years back during the H1N1 scare. A key step is to understand the potential impact of the Ebola situation (current and future - as much as possible) on your organization and employees, then create an action plan and communications plan accordingly. For your communications plan, take such action as monitor information from formal authoritative (CDC and WHO) and informal (social media) sources and craft factual information into regular and frequent updates to employees and their families, and external constituents (customers, public, regulators). The communications could include what is known and unknown, what the organization is doing to stay informed of the situation, how the organization and its employees are affected and how the organization is responding proactively. Include both push (emails, notifications) and self-serve (intranet, company website, social media) communications. Be honest, factual and frequent. Avoid rumors. Showing the company is proactive, actively monitoring and assessing the situation and communicating openly and frequently goes a long way towards reducing uncertainty and concern.