Preparing for the Next Pandemic: 11 Lessons Learned from COVID-19 by Universities

Published: November 10, 2021

COVID-19 has been a challenge for every organization, including institutes of higher education (IHE). Undoubtedly every university planned for a pandemic, but then quickly learned that their plans had to be adjusted for a sustained public health emergency. Complicating the response was a pandemic generated from a “novel” virus that brought many uncertainties and changes, especially in the early response phase.

Previous experience with H1N1 and other campus public health emergencies (bacterial meningitis, measles, tuberculosis, etc.) provided invaluable information that has been applied to the COVID-19 response over the past 18 months. In turn, we must learn from our collective experiences managing COVID-19 on college and university campuses as we plan for the next public health emergency.

The lessons shared will likely only be a starting point for the countless after actions reports (AARs) generated from individual IHEs and a variety of public health organizations. Understanding that the pandemic is not over, we must continue to adjust our plans and response both now and when this pandemic is behind us.

  1. Build capacity before the pandemic: Public health departments are crucial partners, but in a global public health emergency they, too, will likely become overwhelmed and may not be able to provide assistance to universities. Many universities quickly learned that they must develop their own internal contact tracing and notification teams. These teams must remain trained and ready for the next public health emergency. Also, just like organizations prepare for other risks and threats, IHEs must build their own resource capacity (ex., masks, gloves, disinfectant, etc.) before the emergency and not rely on county, state and federal assistance, especially early in the public health emergency.
  2. Plan, but know it is just a plan: Continue to plan for the next pandemic while fully realizing that the plan will only be a starting point. The plan must be flexible, adaptable and expandable. Although the plan must be comprehensive, it must be relatively simple and easy to put into action. How many universities’ vaccine point of distribution plans provided anything beyond a starting point?
  3. Be proactive: Expect changes and resource shortages during a worldwide pandemic. Although a balanced approach to having resources on hand is important, anticipate shortages almost immediately when a public health emergency has been identified. Get in front of the supply chain and have multiple vendors already in your procurement process. Meet early and plan for every contingency that the pandemic may bring.
  4. Get executive support: Like any continuity of operations plan or large-scale response activity, executive support is critical, but it goes beyond simply an endorsement. Someone at the cabinet level must take ownership to generate action. Executive leadership must understand the need for making pandemic response a priority, especially as it relates to staffing and funding.
  5. Communicate often and through multiple platforms: Employees, students and families expect transparent and consistent communication. Information constantly shifts during a crisis, and it can be a challenge to stay on top of all the changes that are rolled out. Establishing a rhythm for communication is key, especially with the perpetual change that occurs during a pandemic.
  6. Leverage existing resources: Every university has resources that provide value during and after an emergency, including a pandemic. Some universities have medical or nursing schools that are an extreme value-add. The key to levering these resources is planning ahead to ensure personnel are trained and available when needed. For example: The time to fit-test potential student nurses is not during the pandemic.

Also, here a few less operational lessons learned that are important to keep in mind for the next pandemic:

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  1. Develop a family plan: Essential employees must have a family plan that will enable them to maintain the critical functions within their department. This was a challenge with family members with children in school or who were primary care givers for elders, dependents and during such an event with an extended duration. Some people may even want to consider a plan for their pets if they anticipate long absences from home!
  2. Expect mistakes: In non-public health emergencies, we like to plan and respond based on risk and active intelligence. We learned with a novel infectious disease the need to “follow the science,” but also soon learned how quickly the science changed. Again, with a novel disease, there will be mistakes that must be tolerated. Do not fault employees for taking initiative or thinking outside the box.
  3. Establish partnerships: Form relationships early with internal campus partners (e.g., police, housing, dining) and external partners (local health departments, hospitals and vendors).
  4. Establish essential employees: Review policies, procedures and position descriptions so individuals are categorized as essential and can be required to report to work specifically for a public health emergency. Generic listing of essential employees does not seem to work for any emergency response, especially for a public health emergency.
  5. Avoid burnout: Front-line employees and those in critical support roles – such as IT teams that created tools used to manage daily health checks, contact tracing and surveillance testing — need to have time away from the job. Employees should be encouraged to take regular breaks, get away and engage in relaxation techniques. While a good portion of the population was able to slow down for a period of time, many others shifted into high gear for months at a time, often spending much of that time away from their families.

Planning may not provide all answers to the details and everything you encounter but it does provide a framework for action. Planning and preparedness provides the opportunity for an effective and efficient response. It also outlines expectations for employees of their potential duties and responsibilities. It gives reference to the potential gravity of a response regarding human, financial and operational impacts.

COVID-19 will not be the last public health emergency on campus. Some other existing or emerging infectious disease will cause concern and potentially disrupt campus operations in the future. Learning valuable lessons from past public health emergencies, like COVID-19, remaining vigilant, retaining trained response teams, maintaining collaborative relationships both internal and external to the organization, and having resources on hand will serve as key mitigation strategies for the next public health emergency.

Andy Altizer is Director of Emergency Management at Kennesaw State University. Tricia Chastain is Vice President for Administration at Kennesaw State University. Brian Deloach is Medical Director at Georgia Southern University. Tracy Skibins is Director of Emergency Management at the University of Notre Dame. Jennifer Swails is Director of Finance & Support Services at the University of Georgia.

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