Yes, it’s a pandemic: Where do we go from here?

first_img(CIDRAP Business Source Osterholm Briefing) – No, the World Health Organization (WHO) has not declared the novel H1N1 (swine) influenza outbreak a pandemic. It should. And it may. But your next steps need not depend on the WHO raising the pandemic alert level to phase 6. In fact, they shouldn’t depend on it.What matters most at this moment is not the number of the phase, but how we respond to the real (and perceived) threat of this genuine influenza pandemic.Going globalThe fact that the virus is causing “sustained community-level outbreaks” in Japan, a country in “another WHO region” means the outbreak has reached the global threshold that qualifies it as a pandemic. That’s according to the very measure the WHO set forth in its latest iteration of alert phases. But, unfortunately, science isn’t guiding the agency’s decision at the moment.I have a feeling that may change very shortly as “influenza scientists” around the world are becoming increasingly vocal in their conclusion; we have an influenza pandemic with the new H1N1 virus. Fortunately it is primarily a mild illness for most of those infected, but we all know that could change with a single virus mutation.The agency is under pressure to incorporate severity level into its decision, to account for the “mild” nature of the current outbreak before calling a full-blown pandemic that could trigger what some worry would be risky and costly actions.But the phases have always been about how well the novel influenza virus passes between people, never how sick it makes them. Mild, moderate, or worse, severity is not part of what defines a pandemic. Maybe it should be. Maybe it can be. But for now, it isn’t. And I’d much prefer that WHO preserve its credibility and stick to science and avert confusion.Whether the WHO raises the alert level to phase 6 shouldn’t have much impact on business, but it might.Much depends on how governments react, particularly the governments of Asia. A misinterpretation of the phases means trouble. Such actions as closing borders, quarantining passengers, and screening people at airports are totally unnecessary, bad for business, and likely to worsen problems. Without taking extreme measures, there’s simply no containing or even dampening the transmission of this virus anymore. Close a border, and people will still find a way in. Same for an influenza virus. Imagine having 11 screen doors on a submarine and closing only 10; you’re still going to sink.Swimming with the sharks?The bottom line is that we have what amounts to a pandemic on our hands, and companies need to adjust accordingly. Our attention must be on its impact on the health of the population. And right now the impact is limited. So here’s what I suggest:1. Be ready for a mixed bag of reactions. If you’re an international company, you’ll likely see great variability in responses from different countries. The novel virus is acting much like a seasonal strain of influenza, and it’s causing what could be considered a “mild” pandemic right now. But how countries and others react may not be proportionate to the severity of the pandemic. Are you ready if borders close in Asia?Also, be mindful that your organization’s pandemic plan may have action steps such as “no travel” or “mandatory work from home” policies that are triggered with a WHO phase 6 declaration. Now is the time to reconsider these actions in light of the mild illness spectrum. They can always be reinstated if the disease picture suddenly worsens.2. Stay tuned. Is this a mild first wave? Will the pandemic fizzle out and be gone for good? Will the virus keep spreading—and mutate into a strain that could become moderate or severe? It’s anyone’s guess at the moment. But investigators are finding new pieces of the puzzle almost daily, and the CIDRAP Business Source team is monitoring the science closely. You’ll be the first to know what we know. You have my word on that.3. Take advantage of the gift of this wake-up call. We certainly don’t want to scare anyone into becoming more prepared, but this “grace period” (to quote WHO Director-General Margaret Chan) is an opportunity to make your case for more attention to preparedness. What we’re seeing right now is akin to a seasonal influenza of moderate severity, which certainly is worthy of note by any business, and that could change on a dime. What would a year of severe seasonal influenza do to your business?Bottom line for businessThe pandemic threat to your business is far from over. Count on us for the intelligence you need to calibrate your company’s response responsibly.last_img read more

University to switch to direct lending

first_imgPresident Barack Obama’s plan to reform student financial aid remains in limbo, but USC is planning to switch to direct lending — a move that would likely be required if the legislation is passed — regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.Under the current system, borrowers may choose either a bank-funded Federal Family Education Loan or a U.S. Treasury-funded Federal Direct Loan, depending on which program their school uses.The Student Financial Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act that passed the House of Representatives in September included provisions to eliminate FFEL and switch entirely to direct lending; the Senate version of the bill is expected to contain this requirement too.The bill has stalled since moving to the Senate, but Katharine Harrington, USC’s dean of Admission and Financial Aid, said USC will switch to the direct lending program for next year.“Due to the volatility of current credit markets, cuts in government subsidies and the uncertain future of pending legislation that may force a change in the nation’s student loan delivery system, the university is switching its participation from the Federal Family Education Loan Program to the Federal Direct Loan Program for the 2010-11 academic year,” Harrington wrote in an e-mail.Harrington said the direct-lending program should simplify the loan process for students. Loans will come from the U.S. Treasury, which she said is a more stable funding source than many of the private banks and loan companies that have been hit hard by the economy.The school has been working to prepare for this move for several months, Harrington said, and the system will be in place in time for the 2010-2011 school year.“Although the change has created additional work, we are well positioned to complete it in the coming weeks,” Harrington wrote. “Both the university and our student borrowers will benefit from this move to the Federal Direct Loan Program.”USC Credit Union Vice President Michael Kim said USCCU has loaned up to $130 million annually with only $30 million in assets but will revamp its loan program this summer because of financial uncertainty — officials are hoping to circumvent this exact problem with direct lending.“We don’t want to offer something we can’t guarantee long term,” he said.During the last three years, according to USA Today, about 550 colleges eliminated the FFEL program while the number of schools using direct lending doubled.Though USC will switch to the direct-lending program one way or another, officials are still waiting to see action on SAFRA, which contains a number of other changes to financial-aid policies.Beyond the switch to direct lending, SAFRA would change the maximum Pell Grant to one percent above the inflation rate, quadruple the Perkins Loan program, increase subsidies for historically black and minority-serving universities, provide loan forgiveness to military members active during school, and simplify the Free Application for Student Aid.SAFRA would save more than $80 billion during the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The U.S. Department of Education can borrow money from the U.S. Treasury at about two percent interest — cheaper than private institutions.By charging interest rates of up to 6.8 percent as set by Congress, the DOE reaps profits that would be used to increase Pell Grant awards to $5,550 in 2010 and to $6,900 by 2019.Over the past few months, SAFRA has taken a back seat in the Senate as the health care bill stole the spotlight.Senate Democrats are hoping to pass their version of the financial-aid bill using a special vote known as budget reconciliation, which requires approval by 51 votes instead of 60. As reconciliation can only be used once per session, and Democrats want to save it for health care reform legislation, the student-aid bill will have to wait.Recently, however, government officials have begun to talk about the possibility of merging part of the health care bill with SAFRA, a move that would expedite the passage of what many consider to be a critical bill.“We think making more aid available to students is important because it is essential in today’s economy to have more students go to college and graduate,” DOE spokesperson Jane Glickman said.One obstacle SAFRA faces is opposition from lenders. Under SAFRA, the four lenders with government contracts — Sallie Mae, Great Lakes, Nelnet and PHEAA — would still handle support, billing, disclosures and payments once a student receives a loan.According to Sallie Mae Vice President for Public Affairs Conwey Casillas, lenders support Obama’s plan but are advocating for two changes to the bill.First, lenders want borrowers to be able to choose which lender services a loan, rather than having the lender chosen by the DOE. Under the current FFEL program, borrowers choose their own lender.Another amendment proposed by lenders would penalize servicers 3 percent on loans defaulted by their borrowers. They say such a provision, which is also in FFEL, would align the interest of servicers with that of students and taxpayers.“These enhancements allow for competition and choice, superior default prevention services and bipartisan support,” Casillas said.The Senate has yet to adopt the lenders’ amendments because of the lenders’ insistence on receiving payments totaling nearly $13 billion over 10 years from the government for originating loans.Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and publisher of, said he expects the Senate to pass the bill in time for the changes to go into effect July 1, the last date colleges may adopt direct lending for the 2010-2011 academic year.But co-director of USC’s Center for Urban Education Alicia Dowd said she fears the bill may fail as the health care bill has thus far.“Obama’s plan to recycle money back into the system is a step in the right direction,” she said. “But my fear is the financial lobby will derail this bill. Students and families have to become aware and speak out against subsidies going to the banks and not the students.”last_img read more

Angels activate Shohei Ohtani, the hitter

first_imgSEATTLE — Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ two-way star who is still unable to throw while waiting for his damaged ulnar collateral ligament to heal, was activated on Tuesday to join the lineup as a designated hitter. Ohtani will bat sixth Tuesday night against the Mariners.Ohtani, who was hitting .289 with six homers and a .907 OPS, could give a boost to an Angels lineup that has struggled to consistently produce.Ohtani was cleared to hit on Thursday, after doctors determined that enough healing had occurred with his elbow that swinging was not a risk. He will be re-evaluated in just over two weeks to see how he’s progressing towards being able to pitch.The Angels also recalled right-hander Miguel Almonte, who had been claimed on waivers in April. They optioned pitchers Deck McGuire and Eduardo Paredes. More to come on this story. Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Errorlast_img read more