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Businesses Wrestle Swine Flu Costs01:53
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Businesses are wrestling with the threat of H1N1 swine flu. When employees get sick, they need to stay home. Too many at once, and that could bring the company to a standstill. That’s a drain at not exactly the best of economic times. The same goes for customers, if they're afraid to go out to eat or shop.

But a researcher at MIT says their worst fears will unlikely be realized. Mathematician Richard Larson does calculations to see how the flu spreads and then dies down. He thinks Massachusetts is pretty close to reaching its peak number of cases of swine flu, and that by Thanksgiving, the worst will be past.

That doesn't mean all of the preparations are for naught. In a few weeks, if people find out that the pandemic wave is petering out, "they should look in the mirror and congratulate themselves," Larson says. "Because if we have collectively done all the social distancing, and if we’ve used hand sanitizer and didn’t shake hands but bumped elbows and these sorts of things, we are each individually and then collectively responsible for eradicating the flu."

And the same goes for all the measures that businesses are taking.

An IT worker at the Spencer-based manufactor Flexcon maintains computer systems critical to company operations. (Courtesy of Flexcon).
An IT worker at the Spencer-based manufactor Flexcon maintains computer systems critical to company operations. (Courtesy of Flexcon).

For example, Spencer-based film manufacturer Flexcon has been wrestling with potential productivity and workplace losses. Company risk manager Darwin Irish has been cross-training employees and coordinating with temp agencies to have replacements on standby. But that doesn’t work for all staff. Irish is worried what to do if all of a sudden one department gets slammed by swine flu.

"The things that keep me up at night?," Irish says. "Internal Sales, as well as our IT department. Very specialized technical aspects of people that we couldn’t necessarily just quickly cross-train someone into those functions."

Flexcon is spending money on videoconferencing and setting these key people up to work from home if need be.

Although MIT's Larson forecasts there won't be a great need for Flexcon to do so, there's always the possibility. Viruses are living things, and can mutate into something more threatening.

The good news is that many of the things people are businesses are doing to prepare are actually lowering the chance of that happening. There are of course costs associated with that. Still, at this point, from the state economy standpoint, swine flu doesn’t look like its going to have a very noticeable impact.

This program aired on November 5, 2009.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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