IT managers play chicken with bird flu

IT Department located near hospital is taking special precautions

If the avian flu hits the United States, the IT department for the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore could have a problem.

The department sits across the street from the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where a high number of infected patients could be treated and where a large percentage of the staff travel widely as part of their jobs, increasing the likelihood they could come back infected.

“Our biggest fear is that we won’t be able to get back to our datacentre for an extended period of time, so we set up systems that would make it accessible remotely,” says Ross McKenzie, IS director for the school of public health.

The school has addressed remote control capabilities for PCs and servers by buying 550 GoToMyPC licences that let network administrators log on via web-based clients.

“Every IT function, except maybe the physical help desk, can be performed remotely at this point,” McKenzie says.

Unfortunately, industry experts speculate that, unlike the Bloomberg School, many IS departments are not planning far enough ahead for an outbreak of the avian flu.

Of 167 government workers across eight federal departments, 44% don’t know how they should react to a flu emergency, according to a poll by Telework Exchange, an online forum trying to quantify how much teleworking goes on in the US federal government.

A survey last month of 300 Minnesota business officials found most thought a flu pandemic would significantly affect their businesses, but only 18% had preparedness plans in place. The poll, sponsored by the University of Minnesota Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, found that close to two-thirds of respondents said they were prepared or somewhat prepared to move employees to remote locations or let them work at home, while 29% said they were not prepared.

The H5N1 influenza virus can be transmitted from birds to humans via close contact, but not from human to human.

Flu experts say mutations are almost certain to create a strain that supports human-to-human transmission. The resultant pandemic will make between 75 million and 90 million people sick in the United States, with as many as two million deaths, according to the US Congressional Budget Office.

Some businesses, such as White Electronic Designs in Phoenix, have the basics of plans in place. “We’ve given consideration to the avian flu situation as part of our enterprise risk management programme,” says Jim Kritcher, vice president of corporate IT for the firm.

He says plans call for asking workers returning from areas where flu has struck to work from home for a period to avoid infecting others at corporate sites. And the company would conduct as much work as possible remotely. “We would certainly be susceptible, especially since we have employees travelling to Asia on a regular basis. We do a significant amount of manufacturing in China,” he says.

For many companies VPNs are the mainstay of their disaster plans. “It’s the lynchpin of our remote access,” says Paul Beaudry, director of technical services for JRI, the largest agribusiness company in Canada, based in Winnipeg.

The company has dual Aventail SSL VPN gateways installed at its headquarters that support 800 employees for accessing email and about 25 work-at-home employees. In the event of flu, that number would rise significantly, and the company would buy more VPN licences and turn up more applications.

The IT staff of 15 has been trained to increase the number of applications available through the gateway and to increase the resources employees are authorised to reach over the VPN, Beaudry says. So even if some of the staff are out of action, someone will be able to set up the VPN for those able to work from home.

Similarly, Kritcher says White Electronic Designs will use its Cisco VPN concentrators to support remote access as well as thin clients to access applications remotely.

The concentrators can scale to handle extra concurrent users, he says. But during an emergency, the number of people trying to connect via the VPN could strain WAN connections and result in slow response times or failure to connect. “So we are testing procedures to reconfigure the WAN links such as wireless IP currently used for failover and redeploy them to support additional VPN traffic,” Kritcher says.

In the case of the Johns Hopkins health school, VPNs were too expensive, McKenzie says. “We didn’t want something that could be open to everyone when we weren’t entirely sure, considering the situation, who or how many would need to use it,” he says.

Such planning is essential, according to Gartner, which has published a report entitled “Prepare Now for a Coming Avian Influenza Pandemic.”

“Enterprises should take the widespread agreement on the strong likelihood of a pandemic ... as a signal to take immediate action,” says Ken McGee, the Gartner analyst who wrote the report. “By mid-2006, [companies should] have in place completed pandemic/IT response plans.”

He recommends preparing lists of the most important knowledge workers on staff and figuring out how they can work from home for extended periods. In addition to network access, they’ll need the ability to conference with co-workers, customers and business partners, he says.

Still, there is only so much IT executives can do, Beaudry notes. “You’ve got a human fear factor, and you may have people reacting in a way you couldn’t predict,” he says. “You may have a quarantine situation and business can be impacted — there’s no question. But you have to keep the business running.”

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