Agris agreed, saying people should "stock up on a certain amount of basics -- dried foods, pastas, extra canned goods, bottled water -- a small amount of that will go a long way."
Caplan said people should also have a supply of high-quality HEPA, or high efficiency particulate air filter, masks and "a lot of soap -- you have to wash your hands."
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Best-case scenario: People work from home when possible and business gets done while children and sick family members are cared for.
Worst-case scenario: Mildly symptomatic people go to work on mass transit, infecting other commuters and co-workers, which only intensifies the spread of bird flu. Businesses are crippled by mass illness and supply-chain disruptions. The nation's food supply is compromised.
Make no mistake: Dragging yourself to work with even a few flulike symptoms could be devastating to those who commute with you and work beside you. Experts said employers will have to cope with absences because of illness, the need of their employees to care for others, and their reluctance to ride mass transit. They also should put policies in place to prevent the spread of the virus at work.
Dr. Eric Toner, senior associate at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that in addition to figuring out who could telecommute and how businesses could function on a reduced staff, companies should provide masks, cancel meetings and increase "social distance" to reduce transmission from person to person. They'll also need to reconsider sick leave policies.
"It's important not to have sick people coming to work," Toner said. "That's the worst thing possible. But what if people exceed their available sick time? For businesses that have contact with the public and their employees get sick, is that covered under workers compensation?"
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, hosted a recent national summit for businesses on planning for pandemic flu. The discussion has begun, he said, but there's a long way to go for companies, as their response will help determine how the virus spreads.
"We have to look at this as a 12- to 18-month global blizzard," Osterholm said. "What companies are now beginning to realize is, even if they have business preparedness and continuity plans for other disasters, none of them have really been planned for addressing a pandemic."
Economic impact will be severe, he said. "Unfortunately, they understand today that they live in a global, just-in-time economy that has basically no surge capacity," Osterholm said, adding, "Part of that is due to the fact that much of planning depends on things beyond the organization -- outsourced supply chains, transportation, utilities, any number of things like that."
Osterholm noted that 80 percent of all drugs in the country use raw ingredients that come from offshore, which will be hard to come by in a global pandemic. "Every country will be in it," he said. "Everything will be in really short supply at a pandemic and needed around the world."