Campus & Community

Harvard continues ‘what-if’ planning

4 min read

Develops response plans for avian flu, other emergencies

As public health authorities monitor the global spread of avian influenza, or “bird flu,” Harvard officials continue to plan how the University would respond to the various needs of students, faculty, staff, and their families in the event of a human pandemic.

Additional information

• Avian flu not in the U.S.

• Continuing emphasis on personal hygiene as best precaution.

• Human-to-human contact not sustained where the flu has been found.

• Harvard medical advisory group monitoring the situation and advising Harvard leadership.

• University working through ‘what-if’ contingency plans.

• Updates available at

While stressing that the H5N1 avian influenza virus has not yet mutated to allow easy human-to-human transmission, in recent weeks Harvard emergency planners have:

    • Convened meetings of the University’s Medical Advisory Group to monitor developments and identify potential triggers for University action.
    • Built a new intranet site for sharing information among the University’s Local Emergency Management Teams (LEMTS).
    • While continuing to stress primary preventive measures such as hand washing and “social distancing,” created a training program for front-line personnel who would not be able to avoid close contact – such as health services workers – in the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
    • Discussed possible locations for sheltering students and Harvard affiliates.
    • Started developing guidelines for which employees would be considered “essential” to be on campus in an emergency situation and which employees could perform their jobs from home via telecommuting.
    • Undertook detailed contingency planning to assure payroll and benefits continuity for faculty and staff in the case of a wide-scale emergency.
    • Discussed ways to make use of the University’s network for remote access to enable academic and business activities.
  • Began developing various triggers and scenarios to determine if and when students might need to be sent home.

Posted updates about Harvard’s avian flu planning on the University Health Services (UHS) Web site at

University planners continued to emphasize the single most effective deterrent to the spread of flu and other viruses: personal hygiene measures such as hand washing and the use of alcohol-based hand gels for the resident student population. This, along with basic “social distancing” concepts (such as staying at least three feet away from people and avoiding people with coughs and colds), is an effort that started a few years ago because of concerns about the SARS virus. UHS Director David Rosenthal said that installation of hand-gel dispensers in dormitories has significantly lessened the number of students who get sick each semester.

While these recent innovations were developed in response to the possibility of a bird flu pandemic, University planners pointed out that they are part of the larger, ongoing effort to prepare for and respond to emergencies that affect Harvard. The effort is led by the University’s Incident Support Team (IST), a group of senior-level managers representing administrative departments, including police and security, health services, building and maintenance operations, environmental health and safety, legal services, communications, human resources, and information technology.

Thomas Vautin, Harvard’s associate vice president for facilities and environmental services and coordinator of the IST, said his group will continue to meet throughout the summer to keep moving forward on contingency plans. The planning work is marked by close collaboration with faculty experts, including members of the University’s Medical Advisory Group on Avian Flu, which includes professors from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government who are prepared to directly advise top University officials about the medical and epidemiological aspects of bird flu should the need arise. The Medical Advisory Group has already begun identifying “triggers” for specific actions, such as issuing travel advisories, canceling public events, or suspending classes.

Any emergency actions or directives would be communicated in a timely manner in many different ways, including through the University’s home page (, its emergency page (, and its special circumstances phone line (617-496-NEWS). Phone and e-mail messaging would also be used, while each School would communicate directly to its students, faculty, and staff in its normal ways. Regular, non-emergency informational updates are available at

Vautin said that though progress has been made in preparing Harvard for a pandemic, much work needs to be done, such as developing plans for students to get home in the event that classes were canceled, which the Local Emergency Management Teams at each Harvard School would oversee, and the distribution of personal protection kits to those in direct, “hands-on” contact with sick people.

– John Lenger