U of M report: Influenza pandemic could disrupt electricity

If thereâÄôs an influenza pandemic across the country, getting sick might be the least of peopleâÄôs worries âÄî generating electricity might be issue no.1. The University of MinnesotaâÄôs Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy released a report Thursday about the threat of losing coal power during the next influenza pandemic. According to the report, an influenza pandemic could disrupt coal supply chains in areas where coal power is heavily relied upon. Overall, coal generates nearly half of the electricity in the United States. Michael Osterholm is the director of CIDRAP who helped make the report. Last week, he was appointed to a global council on influenza pandemics. He said if coal mines or transportation are interrupted, it would cause a domino effect of other parts of the countryâÄôs infrastructure. âÄúWithout electricity, the underpinnings of so many other critical infrastructures or professions are left out into the cold,âÄù he said. Because of that, Osterholm said, coal miners need to be on the top of the list to receive a vaccine once one becomes available for a pandemic influenza virus. âÄúWe have to, at all costs, keep electricity generated during a pandemic,âÄù he said. âÄúIf we donâÄôt, we could be in really serious jeopardy.âÄù Another main point, he said, is to keep more coal stocked to create a backup supply in case itâÄôs needed. âÄúWe need to play pandemic preparedness like a chess-master plays a match,âÄù he said. âÄúYou have to look eight to 10 moves down the board every time a move is made.âÄù Doug Neville, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety , said if thereâÄôs a shortage of electricity in the state, they couldnâÄôt do much about it. Coal plants are private businesses, and the MDPS canâÄôt regulate them. âÄúWe donâÄôt have any regulatory authority, but weâÄôve reached out to the business community all over the state, especially in the critical infrastructure areas,âÄù he said. In an e-mailed statement, Xcel Energy spokesman Tom Hoen detailed the company plans for the possibility of a pandemic. âÄúReserves of coal are kept on hand which would supply power for five to seven weeks,âÄù he said in the e-mail. âÄúIf for some remote reason coal power was not feasible for an extended period of time, Xcel Energy has contingency plans.âÄù If there is an influenza pandemic in Minnesota, Aggie Leitheiser, the assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, said the MDH is working to be prepared for the health of Minnesotans. âÄúOne of the things weâÄôre working on is how do we manage health care with limited resources,âÄù she said. âÄúWeâÄôve been doing a lot of planning around that.âÄù Leitheiser also said it takes more than just planning to be prepared for a pandemic. âÄúYou donâÄôt go from one piano lesson and then the next time youâÄôre at Carnegie Hall,âÄù she said. âÄúYou have to keep practicing and use the skills.âÄù Osterholm said this issue might be placed on the backburner, even though the threat of an influenza pandemic is high. âÄúI really am concerned about this in terms of the current economic crisis,âÄù he said. If actions arenâÄôt taken now, he said, it might hurt down the road. âÄúWe could pay for it now, or we will pay for it later,âÄù he said.