Protecting critical infrastructure: What your organization can do to weather the storm

If we assume COVID-19 will cause a 40% absenteeism rate among all sectors, we must also assume the adverse impact those absences will have on vital services

It seems that roughly every 10 years there is a major event in the U.S. that shifts the economic, political and public policy landscape in this country. Take the last 20 years, for example. In 2001, our nation came under attack on September 11 and engaged in wartime operations on multiple fronts. During 2007 and 2008, our country was faced with a significant economic downturn that decimated housing markets and led to a recession.

Although war and everchanging economic conditions are critical factors that contribute to the success or failure of a country, a microscopic enemy silently lurks largely undetected among the world’s population. The enemy infiltrates every socioeconomic class and ignores geographical boundaries.

In 2009, the enemy was identified as the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. Between 2009 and 2010, the H1N1 pandemic afflicted nearly 61 million people in the U.S. Over 274,000 patients were hospitalized during the same period, and 12,469 deaths were recorded [1].

An NYPD traffic officer wearing personal protective equipment stands at a barricade after the city closed down a section of Bushwick Avenue due to COVID-19 concerns, Friday, March 27, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
An NYPD traffic officer wearing personal protective equipment stands at a barricade after the city closed down a section of Bushwick Avenue due to COVID-19 concerns, Friday, March 27, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

In January 2020, a new pandemic was introduced to the global community, the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. All private and public sector organizations are impacted and face unique challenges. Empty store shelves, closed businesses and schools, canceled events – all of this emphasizes the need for diligent planning efforts. Both private and governmental institutions need to prepare and formulate plans for how to respond before these challenges emerge.

Putting the Problem into Context

Current efforts are focused on controlling the spread of the virus. Analyzing past trends from the 20th century, approximately 30% of the U.S. population is typically afflicted when a pandemic strikes, with more than half of those people seeking medical care [2,3]. Most assumptions during a widespread outbreak involve up to 40% absenteeism within all employment sectors, sometimes for up to two weeks [3,4]. It is also important to note that multiple waves of absenteeism may occur over a 2-3 month period [3]. This is especially important when we consider the impact on essential employees – those whom certain workplace sectors rely on for required support to maintain necessary operations.

Now consider the impact on vital service sectors such as healthcare, public safety and transportation. How do we protect our critical infrastructure and still maintain appropriate levels of support to ensure there are no service disruptions, especially in times of need? To answer that question, we need additional context from a worst-case scenario standpoint. If we assume a 40% absenteeism rate among all sectors, we must also assume the adverse impact those absences will have on vital services.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the healthcare industry consists of 12.7 million personnel, 52% of whom are considered essential to operations [4,5]. The protective services industry, which includes law enforcement, corrections and fire services, consists of 3.4 million personnel, with 87% considered essential [4,6]. Finally, the transportation industry is comprised of approximately 10.2 million employees, 3% of whom are considered essential [3,7]. Table 1 illustrates the overall numbers and statistical information for these three employment sectors based on not only essential status, but the impact derived from a 40% absenteeism rate. The numbers reflected for absenteeism reflect those employees available to work.   

As you can see, both the healthcare and protective services industries would likely not be able to provide basic services as required in situations where extensive absenteeism impacts the number of personnel available. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates that during a severe outbreak, up to 6.5 million people may require hospitalization, with 2.3 million of those requiring specialized care in an intensive care setting [4]. Those numbers could easily overburden this country’s entire healthcare system in as little as three to six weeks.

Even though the margin is not as significant within the transportation sector, consider the impact of 40% fewer goods and services being delivered through normal commerce activity. Given the current situation and shortages that abound, that impact would be sizeable. It is also important to note how roughly 85% of our country’s supply chain management occurs within the private sector [4]. This makes it critically important for both private and public sector organizations to coordinate efforts and formulate continuity plans ahead of these events.

Protecting Infrastructure Through Effective Planning

Obviously, the time to plan for a critical event is before one takes place. Organizations that successfully weather these storms have strong continuity plans in place.

These plans are essential for all organizations, but especially those that provide goods and services to the public. One essential tool is a continuity of operations plan (COOP). A COOP consists of sound business practices that ensure the execution of essential functions and fundamental duties to all stakeholders [8]. It serves as a roadmap and ensures a given organization can still operate and provide required services, even when faced with a natural disaster or pandemic. If your organization does not already have a COOP, one should be developed as soon as possible. Effective COOPs consist of some basic elements [8]:

  • Essential functions: Identify critical activities that will be completed, even when there are major disruptions.
  • Orders of succession and delegation of authority: Determine alternative chains of command and appropriate delegation of authority in times where key leadership is absent.
  • Continuity facilities and communication: Identify alternative worksites and remote working/communications options for employees.
  • Human capital: Identify key personnel who are detrimental to service provision.

Like organizational policy, simply having a COOP is not enough. Organizations must frequently revisit these plans to ensure contemporary operating measures are in place and are effective. In addition, it is paramount organizations practice planning essentials. Take it on a test run. Determine strengths and weaknesses in the plan before it is used in a real-world situation. Training is another key element – make sure your employees are aware of the plan and their roles.

Another factor for consideration involves proactive workplace preparedness. Since employees within all sectors will be affected by a pandemic, sound strategies must be put in place to protect employees while on the job. Consider the following [2]:

  • Establish a process for infection control in the workplace (cleanliness, remote working, etc.)
  • Establish a system for monitoring worker health (internal screenings, etc.)
  • Develop pandemic-specific COOPs
  • Monitor regional/national/international pandemic threat levels and trends
  • Coordinate with community stakeholders and public/private organizations to share planning, preparedness, response, and recovery information
  • Establish partnerships with other sectors/members to provide mutual support and maintenance of essential services

As we are seeing now, containment strategies are designed to reduce the adverse impacts associated with a large-scale outbreak. Part of organizational planning must include internal policies designed to prolong operations while protecting employees. Organizations should be prepared to respond to disease containment measures that may be implemented by the government, including [2]:

  • Isolation: Separation of persons with specific infectious illnesses in their homes, hospitals, or designated healthcare facilities.
  • Quarantine: Separation and restriction of the movement of those who have potentially been exposed to an infectious disease
  • Social distancing: Modify the frequency and type of face-to-face employee encounters and implement strategies that request and enable employees with sicknesses to stay home at the first sign of symptoms.
  • Closing places of assembly: Voluntary or mandatory closure of public places, including churches, schools and other locations where large groups congregate.
  • Furloughing nonessential workers: Voluntary or mandatory closure of all nonessential businesses and/or furloughing all nonessential workers.
  • Changes in movement patterns: Restricting movements, instituting reductions in the transportation sector and applying quarantine protocols.


Effective planning in advance of critical incidents, such as pandemics, is a crucial element that should not be overlooked by any organization. Both private and public sector organizations should regularly analyze existing plans or institute adequate control measures that contribute to organizational efficiency and sustainment during difficult times. Our employees and the communities we serve depend on operational readiness. Is your organization ready for the next big event?


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Past Pandemics.

2. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Pandemic Influenza: Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Guide for Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources.

3. National Infrastructure Advisory Council. The Prioritization of Critical Infrastructure for a Pandemic Outbreak in the United States Working Group: Final Report and Recommendations by the Council.

4. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Pandemic Impacts to Lifeline Critical Infrastructure.

5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Employment and Wages - Healthcare: May 2018

6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Employment and Wages – Protective Services: May 2018.

7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Employment and Wages – Transportation: May 2018.

8. Federal Emergency Management Agency. Continuity of Operations: An Overview

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