Campus & Community

University continues “what-if” flu pandemic planning

4 min read

Local emergency teams examine draft pandemic plan

As part of its ongoing “what-if” planning process to respond to a bird flu pandemic, emergency managers from across the University gathered at the Graduate School of Education Monday (Oct. 16) to consider a draft avian flu pandemic emergency plan, and to listen to a presentation on the importance of planning for business continuity in the case of an emergency.

The meeting was part of the University’s ongoing emergency management coordination. Various teams from the Schools and University have been meeting for more than a year, considering how to handle the various aspects of a pandemic and its potential effect on the University.

University Health Services Director David Rosenthal said the situation with respect to avian influenza, or bird flu, is quiet right now and that staffers from his office are monitoring the situation.

Though the avian influenza was the subject of this particular meeting, aspects of pandemic planning – such as enhanced communications capabilities and clarity on decision making between the University and the Schools – are also useful in a wide variety of other emergency situations.

In response to questions, Rosenthal said it is impossible to say if or when avian influenza might undergo the feared mutation into a form that is easily transmissible from person to person. While there have been more than 250 cases of bird flu in humans since 2003, 151 of which were fatal, according to the World Health Organization, most caught it directly from birds – usually domestic fowl – with which they were in close proximity. There has been some, but very limited, human-to-human transmission. Health officials believe that should the virus mutate into a form that is easily transmissible among humans, the virus could spread rapidly around the globe.

While Rosenthal said that whether or not the current bird flu virus becomes more easily transmissible, health officials believe that we’re overdue for a flu pandemic of some type.

“It’s very difficult to say,” Rosenthal said. “Experts are still predicting we’re going to have a pandemic. We’re due.”

In addition to flu shots, the best deterrents against all forms of the flu continue to be washing your hands and covering your mouth when coughing.

During the meeting, members of the University’s Incident Support Team (IST) presented a draft pandemic flu plan that detailed areas of responsibility and anticipated responses of critical Central Administration units, such as University Health Services; the Harvard News Office; Harvard University Police Department; the Office of Human Resources; University Information Systems, which handles telecommunications and computer systems that are University-wide; and University Operations Services, which handles a wide range of facilities, transportation, mail, and other services.

The audience was largely made up of directors of local emergency management teams (LEMT), which, in the case of all emergencies are the frontline people managing emergencies in Harvard’s various Schools, departments, and centers.

The IST and LEMTs are just two layers of a four-part emergency management structure headed by a Crisis Management Team (CMT), composed of Harvard’s president, the deans, and vice presidents. Advising the CMT is the Medical Advisory Committee, made up of medical experts. The IST is charged with advising and framing issues and options for the CMT, and assisting the LEMTs in their response to an emergency.

Speakers at the session urged local units within the University to begin talking to vendors now about how to maintain essential supplies and services and to make arrangements now for expanded communications capabilities, such as conference calling and virtual private networking, that would become essential should a pandemic make it necessary for a large number of staffers to work from home. They also urged Schools and departments to prioritize the services they provide, and to discuss what would be considered “essential” if there were prolonged periods when the campus was inaccessible and fewer staff available.

They discussed various action “triggers” that would prompt the CMT to take certain steps along a continuum from mounting educational campaigns to canceling public events to canceling classes and sending students home.

Thomas Vautin, associate vice president for facilities and environmental services, who heads the IST, emphasized that the planning process is ongoing and the draft plan a work in progress. He also stressed, however, that advanced planning is crucial to successfully responding to a pandemic because of the potentially rapid spread of an influenza virus.

“We’re going to have to make decisions in a timely way,” Vautin said.

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