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The H1N1 pandemic and IT disaster recovery planning: Lessons learned

Although the H1N1 virus hasn't hit the United States as hard as expected, there were many lessons learned for disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) planners.

The H1N1 influenza virus that grabbed the attention of IT people around the world last year will have an impact on disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) planning that will be felt for years to come, according to DR planning experts.

The H1N1 influenza virus was first detected last April, and it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in June. Individuals were urged to get vaccinated, to wash their hands to prevent the spread of the virus, and to stay away from infected individuals, particularly if you were in a risk group (children, pregnant women and the elderly). Businesses were urged to update their disaster recovery (DR) plans and pandemic recovery plans -- and organizations without one could be in big trouble.

Although the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, hasn't turned out to be as devastating in the Unites States as many had predicted, there were lessons learned from the experience for IT organizations involved in DR. One is that the H1N1 virus made pandemic planning an IT issue for the first time, rather than just a human resources (HR) issue. It also presented different issues than the threats posed by incidents such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or terrorist strikes, which many disaster recovery policies are planned around.

Jonathan Nguyen-Duy, director of risk management for Verizon, said disaster recovery planning for H1N1 "made workforce continuity a bigger issue. Companies are more cognizant of the challenges around ensuring COOP [Continuity of Operations Planning] with a highly distributed and mobile workforce."

World Health Organization Phase Descriptions
Phase 1: No animal influenza virus circulating among animals have been reported to cause infection in humans. 

Phase 2: An animal influenza virus circulating in domesticated or wild animals is known to have caused infection in humans and is therefore considered a specific potential pandemic threat.
Phase 3: An animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus has caused sporadic cases or small clusters of disease in people, but has not resulted in human-to-human transmission sufficient to sustain community-level outbreaks. 

Phase 4: Human to human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus able to sustain community-level outbreaks has been verified

Phase 5: Human-to-human spread of the virus in two or more countries in one WHO region. 

Phase 6: In addition to the criteria defined in Phase 5, the same virus spreads from human-to-human in at least one other country in another WHO region.
Post peak period: Levels of pandemic influenza in most countries with adequate surveillance have dropped below peak levels.
Post pandemic period: Levels of influenza activity have returned to the levels seen for seasonal influenza in most countries with adequate surveillance.

Source: World Health Organization

He added, "It also raises ethical concerns for the first time -- which organizations should get priority per vaccines? Do they disclose that publicly? Who gets priority in the company? Does that cover family members, too?"

Harvey Betan, a business continuity planning consultant said H1N1 raised awareness of planning for a pandemic.

"Suddenly, organizations realized that a pandemic was a serious possibility," he wrote in an email to "Those organizations that had plans were able to modify them as the situation changed and others took the threat more seriously. I think many more pandemic plans exist now than 18 months ago."

Nguyen-Duy said you can learn from the H1N1 situation, even if your company wasn't directly affected. "The low virulence of this latest pandemic has given us an opportunity to gauge what works and what needs to be addressed," he said. "One clear lesson is that continuity and business resilience are dependent on multiple systems that all have to be prepared in order to ensure continuity of operations throughout any incident -- from regular incidents like snow storms and power outages, to lower frequency but highly disruptive events like pandemics and hurricanes."

According to Betan, "The major lesson for business continuity planners has been that the timeframes we all expected were way off the mark. All organizations I know of had used the World Health Organization (WHO) Phases (see sidebar "WHO pandemic phases") for timing the outbreak. We were all surprised at how quickly the pandemic went from Phase 3 through 6.

"Organizations have since modified their plans on what has been found to be a more realistic timeline. This is the case especially with multinational organizations."

One company that was prepared for the H1N1 pandemic was Vocera Inc., a wireless communications software provider in San Jose, CA. Vocera has a disaster recovery plan and an offsite data center located in Phoenix that it can fail over to, said Amy Karabinas, vice president of engineering.

"We created our DR plan with a major Bay-area earthquake in mind, and found out the all other subsets [like a pandemic] would have us covered," Karabinas said.

Still, there were other steps Vocera took that wouldn't be necessary in case of an earthquake. Because Vocera services the healthcare industry, human resources communicated to all employees they should stay home if they weren't feeling well and employees could work from home if needed. Antibacterial wipes were provided for employees to wipe off their telephones and computers. Informational bulletins from were posted throughout the building.

"The actions we took -- communicating information to everyone -- had good results," Karabinas said. "No one in our company got the swine flu," Karabinas said.

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