It sounds like the plot of the next blockbuster movie. A third of the world’s population is struck down by a deadly virus that spreads across the globe so rapidly that there is no time to develop a vaccine. Up to half of those infected – even young, healthy adults – die. But as health professionals know, this scenario is not just a flight of fancy. It could be the very real effects of the next pandemic flu outbreak, particularly if H5N1 (also known as highly pathogenic avian flu) is the virus in question, and it is this knowledge that is pushing not just federal and state government but organizations and businesses throughout the world to develop a strategy to tackle it.
Within colleges and universities, the burden of pandemic flu planning is likely to fall upon many student health directors, even at institutions with environmental health and safety departments. John Covely, a consultant on pandemic flu planning and the co-author of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s pandemic plan, explains why this is so.
“Traditionally, emergency planning originates from public safety, or environment health and safety, but a communicable disease poses the biggest threat to students in group quarters. Thus, student health directors are often leading the emergency planning effort for the whole university, because the entire plan – not just the student health component – could be the difference in life or death for their students.”
The importance of having a campus-wide plan that is ready – not just in the preliminary stages – when the pandemic strikes is all the more clear when you consider that, unlike seasonal flu, H5N1 has an increased risk for the typical student demographic of young, healthy adults. The startlingly high mortality rate of up to 60 percent is partly due to a protein, also found in the strain of virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic flu outbreak, which causes a response in a healthy immune system known as a “cytokine storm”, often leading to respiratory failure and death.
Planning for such a massive and yet unpredictable event may seem a formidable task, but Dr. Anita Barkin, chair of the American College Health Association’s pandemic planning committee, counsels that those universities and colleges that have yet to formulate a pandemic plan shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the work that lies before them. “Pandemic planning is about good emergency preparedness. The things we do to prepare for any emergency are the things we would do to prepare for pandemic flu,” she explains.
Although the tragic Virginia Tech shootings this spring were a different kind of emergency, the issues are similar to the issues faced in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak. Coordinating resources, communicating with everyone on campus and deciding at what stage classes should be called off are questions that have to be answered in most emergency situations. Take your pandemic planning one step at a time, advises Barkin.
“The first step is to find out whether there is an existing emergency plan on campus,” she says. “If there is, who is in charge of it? Health providers on campus should then take charge and begin to formulate the plan.”
There are many unknown factors, but build the framework of the plan first with the elements you can be sure of. Form a committee with all key areas represented, including executive leadership. ACHA’s Guidelines for Pandemic Planning provides a list as an example that may help you collate this. Identify the functions that will be critical in the case of a pandemic and the personnel on campus responsible for each of these, making sure there are enough people representing each function that should some become sick, the plan is not compromised. Identify decision makers, a chain of command, and what channels of communication are to be used. Finally, decide on the role of student health services. Many campuses will have the student health director as the key decision maker in the event of a pandemic, but for some it will be more appropriate for the student health director to have an advisory role instead. In any case, college health professionals will be crucial to the success of every plan.
The biggest question that is central to every campus-wide pandemic plan: when is the right time to send students home? Covely warns that universities cannot necessarily wait for cues from state public health departments before they make their decisions. “The university has to have its own in-depth criteria in advance of a pandemic, and the student health director should be very involved in developing those criteria.”
Barkin suggests looking back to the 1918 influenza epidemic for context.
“In 1918, the virus spread across the country in three to four weeks. If you think about the fact that the virus traveled from coast to coast in that short a time when the primary means of long-distance transport was the train, and then you think about how much more quickly we can travel today by plane, that timeline is going to be compressed significantly.”
In other words, don’t wait too long to send your students home. Nor should your trigger for this decision rely on the geographical proximity of the virus to your campus alone. Covely explains:
“Geographical proximity is not definitive enough in this age when in a single day, there are 50,000 passenger flights throughout the world,” he says. “Because New York City and Hong Kong have major international airports, epidemiologically, New York City is actually closer to Hong Kong than it is to Buffalo, so waiting to suspend classes until a confirmed case gets to your region, or within 500 miles, may be too late.”
The factors that will determine how early you make the call to send students home will center on the composition of your student population. If your students are mostly from in-state, they will probably be traveling home by car and so you can wait slightly longer before canceling classes and closing the campus down. If many students live a long way away and are going to need to use mass transportation, you may have to act more quickly or risk being swamped with very ill students at a time when the local hospitals will not have the resources to help.
There are three main elements that will shape the logistics and the scale of your plan, and help you figure out the best trigger to send students home. Remember that, as Barkin comments, “The longer you wait, the higher the rate of infection, the less chance of being able to get students home and the less likely you can manage the burden of disease.”
These factors are as follows:
Student demographics, particularly the number of students who live on campus and the number of non-local students who are likely to be dependent on care.
The size of your staff (taking into account that up to 50 percent may be sick at one time).
Your ability to stockpile enough basic supplies, including medications, as well as personal protective equipment such as respirators.
This is where things start to get more complicated, however. Most student health services can’t afford to stockpile many medical supplies. “ACHA is running a survey on pandemic planning,” reveals Barkin. “Of the schools that have responded, most have not stockpiled, or if they have, it’s not a lot.” This could clearly prove disastrous, and for many colleges is a manifestation of what Covely cites as one of the biggest challenges of pandemic planning for some universities: “getting buy-in from the executive leadership.” Pandemic planning is by no means a cost-free exercise.
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. Villanova University’s plan includes broadcasting SMS text messages and e-mails and using an emergency Web page for mass communication.