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Financial Institutions Nationwide Testing Preparedness For Hypothetical Flu Pandemic

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Financial institutions nationwide testing preparedness for hypothetical flue pandemic

By Martin Crutsinger



WASHINGTON — Don't be alarmed if your local bank teller is looking a bit sickly over the next three weeks. It is only a cyber-illness.

Hundreds of banks and other financial institutions are participating in the largest test of its kind ever conducted to ensure the nation's financial system can keep functioning in case of an outbreak of pandemic flu.

The test began Monday and will run for three weeks.

Treasury, aided by other federal agencies and the private sector, has devised a three-week script for how a serious outbreak of bird flu might affect operations at banks, credit unions, securities firms and insurance companies.


The exercise also covers companies that provide critical behind-the-scenes processing to keep the flow of checks and money circulating around the country.

According to the scenario devised by Treasury, a number of cases of bird flu in humans are reported overseas and the illness spreads quickly to the United States by people traveling on international flights.

The whole exercise is part of a plan unveiled by President George W. Bush in May 2006 directing various government agencies to upgrade their planning for pandemic outbreaks. The Government Accountability Office earlier this month criticized the administration for failing to conduct sufficient tests to make sure agencies understand their responsibilities.

One of the biggest challenges is how to cope with absenteeism. In week one, the Treasury exercise directs the financial organizations to assume that 25 percent of the work force is not coming to work, either because of illness or of fear of being infected or because they are taking care of children whose schools have closed. The 25 percent absentee rate will jump to 49 percent in week two.

Absent employees won't be the only troubles facing the financial institutions. Under Treasury's scenario, they also will have to cope with shrinking Internet bandwidths as more and more people try to work from home. Cash withdrawals from ATM machines are expected to rise sharply, and getting the machines refilled will present problems.

By the end of the three weeks, Abend said the government and the institutions participating will have a much better idea of just what a flu pandemic will mean in the United States.

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