Researchers explore the broad-reaching effects of a pandemic in Wisconsin

April 28, 2009 By Sandra Knisely

If a pandemic hit Madison, canceling a football game at Camp Randall Stadium would protect thousands from exposure to illness. However, the economic cost would be substantial for stadium workers and employees at nearby restaurants and businesses if widespread, prolonged illness forced officials to call off an entire season of Badger football.

Can state government protect the public while softening the economic blows that would follow the closure of nonessential businesses and entertainment venues during a pandemic? UW–Madison industrial and systems engineering professor Vicki Bier and colleagues explored these issues in a report published by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS) in June 2008. Based on the team’s research, the report provides insight into when and whether to close schools, which businesses must stay open and which can close — and how the working poor may be affected by these decisions.

DHFS representatives asked Bier to study these issues to help them understand how a pandemic would affect Wisconsin and make good decisions. It includes the first-ever county-by-county projection of how a pandemic would economically affect Wisconsin, making it a tool for both public health officials and legislators.

In a northern state like Wisconsin, a pandemic is somewhat like a “snow day,” says Bier. In both cases, schools and nonessential businesses close. However, snow days generally don’t last more than 24 hours. Pandemics can persist for weeks or even months. Moreover, pandemics frequently move in waves, meaning a community likely would experience long-term shut-downs multiple times in a year.

“It’s always a good idea to be prepared,” Bier says. “Pandemics are different from natural disasters, which usually damage assets like buildings or facilities and leave the vast majority of the workforce OK. In pandemics, by and large the physical workplaces are OK — and it’s the people that are unavailable because they are ill or staying home.”

DHFS pandemic influenza project manager Lisa Pentony agrees that thinking ahead is crucial in preparing an effective government response. “We’re very pleased with the paper,” says Pentony. “This will help us plan for the legal and regulatory issues at the state level.”

An estimated 30 to 40 percent of employees could be absent from their workplaces during a pandemic, either because they are ill or because they are staying home to care for sick family members. Workers in the service and hospitality industries are particularly vulnerable, since their employers are likely to close. Lost wages could cause real financial hardship for many of these workers, who often live from paycheck to paycheck to buy food and make rent or mortgage payments. Simple solutions, such as a temporary moratorium on utility shutoffs, might help to alleviate some of these problems.

The research ultimately is valuable, says Bier, because it brings awareness to the broad-ranging effects of a pandemic. “From here, we can do more detailed economic analysis and look at how we can create communities that are more resilient and capable to cope with these kinds of crises,” she says.

Bier’s collaborators include UW–Madison engineering physics assistant scientist Lorna Zach, Madison attorney Susan King, Terrence O’Sullivan from the University of Southern California and Ivaniss Burgos from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.

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