DADE CITY — With the sour economy, David West thought he would have a hard time getting business executives interested in his new job: helping companies develop emergency plans in case of a pandemic.
Then swine flu hit the headlines. Now he expects his phone to start ringing and his calendar to fill up.
"When a pandemic hits, there's time to dust off a plan," the 51-year-old pastor and former Tampa Tribune community relations manager said Wednesday from his office at the Pasco County Health Department. "There isn't time to make a plan."
West's job, which began in January, is funded with part of a $189,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was awarded by the Florida Department of Health. Pasco is the only county in the state that sought the grant, which includes a coordinator for hospitals and government as well as clerical staff.
The county's work will be used as a template for other small counties, where small businesses tend to dominate. Officials also expect it to weave with state-mandated emergency management plans for conventional disasters such as hurricanes.
West's connections with business leaders through his previous jobs, plus his service as a Rotary Club district governor, prompted health department officials to give him the task of working with the private sector.
West has no medical background but has done extensive research about pandemics. He comes to chamber of commerce breakfasts with a PowerPoint presentation that mixes grim details of a worldwide flu outbreak with the comic relief of cartoons, including one of Sylvester the Cat being chased by a sneezing Tweety Bird.
"You don't want to scare people too much," he said. "You want to scare them just enough so they're motivated to prepare."
During an April 8 presentation at the Central Chamber of Commerce in Land O'Lakes, West made the buttoned-down crowd squirm a little in their seats.
"At that time, there was nothing; flu season was almost over," chamber director Kathy Dunkley said. "But now, lo and behold a few people have said to me, 'Wow, you just had that talk.'
He was very thorough and really did his homework."
West argues that such plans are an example of good corporate citizenship, while at the same time appealing to business sensibilities. It's good for the bottom line to be ready, he said, especially if a competitor isn't.
"I want to help them come out on the other side," he said.
West doesn't have pat answers, because each business is different. Some, such as drug stores and movie rental businesses, could be in high demand, while others, such as theaters and antique shops, could come to a standstill.
West does know that a pandemic is different from other disasters. Unlike hurricanes, which are visible, localized, relatively short-lived and bring people together, infectious disease outbreaks can't be seen, can have a global impact, might last months or even return and can isolate people.
"You can't depend on mutual aid. Another area might be having its own problems. After a hurricane, you tell everyone to come to the Wal-Mart parking lot to get supplies, but in a pandemic, there's social distancing."
What West does is help businesses ask the right questions. Who's in charge? Who's next in line if that person is sick? How would you stay open if a third of your staff is sick? Would you decide to offer paid leave to keep sick staffers from coming to work? Do you have enough supplies to operate? Do you have backup suppliers in case your vendors are sick?
How would you serve customers who fear infection? How would you pay staffers? What if the electricity goes out?
Many of these questions, which West is putting on a master checklist, would apply only in worst-case scenarios, which West quickly points out is not the case.
"We're not in a pandemic," he said.
But he stresses the need to be ready for one.
"These are things you don't think about ahead of time without stopping to think about them. We ought to prepare out of vigilance, not fear."
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.