How to Plan for Campus Health Emergencies

Here are some of the lessons learned from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic scare that campus officials can apply to future planning and response processes.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Campus Safety Magazine in 2010. Many of the recommendations made in this article relating to pandemic flu can also be applied to Ebola.

After years of planning and preparing for the peril of an influenza pandemic, in April 2009 campus officials came face to face with novel H1N1 flu. Public health and emergency management staff all began to speculate on the potential impact of the crisis. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) began regular communications to keep officials and citizens informed and provide insight into what to expect.

Campus officials responsible for pandemic planning and response dusted off planning documents to determine their use in meeting the H1N1 threat.

Officials kept a close eye on the global situation, while managing the emergence of cases on campus and in the community. Many questions emerged. It quickly became obvious that most pandemic plans simply did not address the current situation. While some students and parents became increasingly concerned, other’s discounted the threat perhaps simply as “just another public health scare.”

Did a new plan need to be developed and written? If so, by whom? Could the existing pandemic flu plan simply be modified? Where should everyone begin, and what process and format should be followed?

Many campuses ultimately came to the conclusion that their pandemic flu plan, a product of years of work and consideration, could be adapted to address H1N1. Emergency managers went to work following the incident command system’s Planning “P” process to develop an Incident Action Plan (IAP).

How the Planning “P” Can Guide You

Existing pandemic plans were developed as a tool to respond to a worst-case scenario public health emergency. As H1N1 unfolded, many colleges and universities were faced with the challenge of rapidly modifying existing plans to meet the new threat. H1N1 was a unique challenge because it disrupted student life and strained certain resources, but the virus was not severe enough to justify cancelling classes and scaling back operations.

The Planning “P” provides an excellent and common sense guide for responding to incidents of this nature. One of the first actions in response to H1N1 was to assemble a task force of decision makers that determined the goals and objectives and how they were going to be accomplished. The next step, congruent with the Planning “P”, was to develop a plan based on these objectives, execute that plan and ultimately evaluate the outcomes.

Developing an IAP that specifically focused on H1N1 and adding that as an annex to the existing pandemic flu plan was a simple and tangible approach. A team of stakeholders and decision makers convened within the first week of the onset of the H1N1 pandemic to outline specific goals and objectives, to identify the impact on resources and to mitigate the affect of the flu on operations and the community.

One of the challenges in developing the H1N1 IAP was deciding how to balance a response plan with a continuity of operations plan. The plan addressed how to manage sick students, faculty and staff, how to isolate those who lived in dorm rooms, who to notify, and how to mitigate absenteeism among staff and faculty. By following the Planning “P” and keeping the IAP simple and flexible, the team was able to make quick adjustments and changes as the threat and risk shifted.

The final stage of the Planning “P” was to do an after action review of the entire event. By assessing and documenting what went right and what needed to be improved, the plan was adjusted and reinforced with the lessons learned.

ICS Used During Vaccination Process

The response to H1N1 proved to be a continuous and sustained occurrence that encompassed all of the components of the Incident Command System (ICS). This was primarily a public health/health services emergency, but as with most incidents, it required action from numerous different departments and disciplines. Approaching this event as a unified team, with leaders and decision makers from each of the relevant departments proved to be a successful tactic.

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