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Health Center Staff In Lead Role

One tip if you are facing resistance from campus decision-makers over spending money on pandemic planning is to emphasize the fact that once you’ve formulated a response to a possible pandemic, you will have a robust emergency response strategy that can be adapted to fit virtually any emergency, whether it’s evacuation in the event of wildfires, such as Pepperdine University faced recently, a terrorist threat, or an “active shooter”. Investment in, say, developing a Web site with emergency information and updates can be a public relations bonus and a reliable resource. chiropractorcentennial Villanova University’s plan includes broadcasting SMS text messages and e-mails and using an emergency Web page for mass communication.

When you do know the scope of your resources, both human and financial, you can continue to flesh out your plan. Excellent resources can be found on ACHA’s Web site: http://www.acha.org and http://www.pandemicflu.gov. A tip from the experts: be wary of developing your plan in a vacuum. “I know of a school that didn’t know their gymnasium was being considered as a point of vaccination until they happened to find out in the course of an outreach program,” Barkin relates. “The local health department hadn’t informed them.” This is very obviously a benefit of starting a dialogue with your local health services: you find out what they have planned and you can also coordinate your plans to add value and decrease the number of unknown factors.

Dr. Mary McGonigle, director of the student health center at Villanova University, says that their dialogue with their local health department led to Villanova being assessed and labeled a “push” site, a location that is self-sufficient in this type of emergency. She explains:

“In the event of a pandemic, we’d go and pick up supplies from the county and then administer medicine to our Villanova community. That includes students, faculty and their families.”

Help from the county is a financial boon but being self-sufficient and staying local also lowers the risk of spreading the virus so rapidly. The dialogue helps your local health services too. If your local hospitals are likely to have a shortage of beds, they may want to use college dorms for surge capacity at the peak of a pandemic. In return, they may be able to offer you some resources, although research suggests that most hospitals have not had the budget to be able to stockpile effectively either.

Once you have your plan together, it’s important not just to file it away and forget about it. “Planning for a pandemic is very much a work in progress, but it is often hard to keep up the interest in reviewing and updating plans, especially when H5N1 activity drops out of the news,” explains Covely. Tabletop exercises are one way to test the effectiveness of a plan and a good way to maintain interest. Covely specializes in facilitating these tabletops and finds that they can significantly increase staff’s buy-in as well as providing useful discussion points.

“Used before the planning begins, tabletops provide a way of educating employees and getting them interested in developing continuity of operations plans,” he says. “They are excellent for post planning too, in order to test the plans. I am always amazed at the creative analysis and insight that comes from a tabletop.”

The ongoing and fluid nature of pandemic planning is very much evident in some of the complex and thorny issues that have no definitive answer. These may need to be revisited and rethought as scientific discoveries are made, as you approach a pandemic, and if your college’s resources change. One such issue is the availability of expensive antivirals. The federal government has announced that it is stockpiling them and coming up with a strategy for distribution, which might seem to take some of the financial pressure off student health services. Barkin however has a caveat. “I’m concerned that stockpiles would not be distributed in enough of a timely fashion to make an impact on the community. Katrina is a situation that has to come to mind.”

Even if you did manage to persuade campus decision-makers to invest budget in stockpiling antivirals, a potentially challenging feat, there’s a chance that they would be ineffective by the time a pandemic occurs, as overuse can cause the emergence of a resistant strain. Barkin explains that infectious disease experts are talking about using a treatment cocktail – Tamiflu plus one or two other agents – to protect against the emergence of resistant strains, but this would be prohibitively expensive for the average college health center.

Another ethical dilemma surrounding pandemic planning concerns who should get prepandemic vaccines. Scientists are developing vaccines based on the strain of avian flu that has been circulating in Asia, hoping that the vaccine would be enough of a match to combat the illness until a proper vaccine could be developed six months after the pandemic’s emergence. But supplies of this prepandemic vaccine will be limited.

“Some of the conversations around who should get these prepandemic vaccines are very complex,” says Barkin. “Should it be health care workers that get it, or public safety workers such as firemen? Should it be government officials, or the very young and elderly?” Recently, the federal government has announced a three-tiered approach to vaccination that it has developed in consultation with public focus groups and ethicists that places health care workers in the second tier. Whether your health center staff will receive the vaccine, whether it will be in a timely fashion, and how effective it will actually be, are all factors that will affect your pandemic plan greatly – and demonstrate how much of your planning has to leave room for the unknown.

One thing that is beyond question is the importance of student health services acting now. Formulating a pandemic plan may be a slow and ponderous task, but there’s one vital aspect that will slow the spread of a pandemic and can be tackled by your department immediately without getting tangled in red tape and endless meetings. Barkin elaborates:

“Every single student health service needs to be involved in educational outreach efforts to distribute information on the role of flu vaccinations, cough etiquette, when to come to work and when to stay at home if you are ill and the importance of creating a personal preparedness plan in the event of a pandemic.”

This public health education can be a collaborative effort with human resources and residence life staff. Covely agrees and even suggests extending the scope beyond campus boundaries. “It’s part of being a good and responsible neighbor to the community, and it has tremendous public relations benefits to the university,” he says.

The collaboration required in pandemic planning can build bridges, but be prepared for it also to be particularly challenging. McGonigle relates:

“At Villanova, we’re still in the stages of planning. We’ve done a lot. But I would say the most difficult part is trying to connect and communicate with all the different departments on campus and plan for all the different scenarios.”

Indeed, planning for all contingencies – not just the obvious problems of effectively treating the sick and minimizing the mortality rate, but also coping with disruptions to services and shortages of supplies caused by huge absenteeism and the ensuing breakdown in the transportation system, and questions such as whether to pay staff if the campus is shut down – has caused planning at many colleges and universities to take much longer than anticipated.

Pandemic planning is also dogged by a sense of unreality: could something this vast really happen? (The answer, as every health professional knows, is “yes”, and is a question of when and not if.) Media coverage of pandemic flu is patchy and focuses on sensational stories rather than the need for personal emergency preparedness. Because it’s not an issue in the forefront of the public’s mind, it’s sometimes hard to conjure up the necessary sense of urgency, particularly because there is always some issue on campus demanding more immediate attention. Barkin sympathizes, but has some sobering last words on the subject.

“Recently, the issue of pandemic flu has fallen off the radar,” she says. “We’ve been talking about it for two years and now there are other pressing issues that have pushed it to the back burner. But the issue of pandemics is not going to go away. We’ve had them throughout history and if you look at the patterns, we’re due for a pandemic soon. It may or may not be H5N1, and it may or may not be on the 1918 scale. What we cannot ignore, however, is the planning that’s needed, because in a pandemic, health centers and heath care providers will be looked to and expected to know how to respond.”

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