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Tom Pohlman (Environmental Health and Safety) is coordinating efforts to prepare for a potential pandemic flu outbreak at ECU. All UNC-system schools are working on a plan for responding to an outbreak. (Photo by Jeannine Manning Hutson)


"Not a Matter of If But When"

ECU Begins Preparations for Pandemic Flu Outbreak

By Jeannine Manning Hutson

When the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 finally subsided, more than 675,000 Americans were dead. Worldwide, approximately 50 million people died because of the disease outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


How a Pandemic Flu Outbreak Might Affect ECU

Q: Who can close the university?

A: The governor can declare a state of emergency and close all public schools and functions. In the event of an influenza pandemic, the North Carolina State Health Director will advise the governor on the cancellation of events. “However, if we feel that the threat is real and that the state is not moving fast enough, the chancellor can close the university to help prevent the spread of the virus,” said Tom Pohlman.


Q: If ECU closes, would faculty and staff still report to work?

A: It depends, Pohlman said, whether that person is considered “essential personnel.” The ECU Police Department, Facilities Services and clinical staff at the Brody School of Medicine clinics will be needed, if staff members are not sick. The Department of Human Resources is working on policies for employees who could temporarily telecommute.

Q: Will Student Health remain open for students?

A: Yes. Student Health personnel plan to remain open to treat students.

Q: Will the Brody School of Medicine clinics also remain open?

A: Yes. Because the medical school sees hundreds of patients each week, they will remain open. Outlying clinics may be relocated into the Brody Outpatient Clinics spaces to consolidate resources. “The health sciences campus will be the critical point because they must remain open to treat the public, so a lot of our efforts will be focused on that (if the university closes),” Pohlman said.

Q: For employees who consider themselves potential candidates for telecommuting, what should they do to prepare?

A: Carol Davis (ITCS) suggests that faculty and staff regularly update information on their Pirate Drive. “It’s good practice to back up your critical files anyway. Faculty members who need a lot of space to hold research data, should contact ITCS,” she said.

Q: What if the university has to close during the middle of a semester?

A: Pohlman said that Academic Affairs is still working on that issue. “We want to do what’s right for students,” he said.

Q: Some discussion about when and if a pandemic strikes mentions that people should be prepared to be without power for a day or two. Why?

A: According to Kevin Keyzer with Greenville Utilities Commission, the influenza virus won’t affect power lines. However, if a storm strikes while many linemen are sick, it could take days for the healthy workers to restore power.

Other global influenza outbreaks occurred in 1957-58 and 1968-69 and were significant in the number of victims, but neither had the death toll of the “Spanish flu” outbreak of 1918.

The CDC and the World Health Organization are monitoring for outbreaks of influenza around the world that might signal the beginning of a pandemic.

A modern-day rerun of the pandemic of 1918-19 would infect 90 million Americans – roughly 30 percent of the population – killing more than 2 million of them, according to a Congressional Budget Office report cited in the Raleigh News and Observer.

That same newspaper article also reported that a CDC computer model based on the 1918-19 pandemic showed a “most likely” scenario indicating between 28,318 and 66,075 North Carolinians would die, depending on the rate of infection of the virus. The model also showed between 124,720 and 291,015 people in N.C. would need hospital care.

In North Carolina, the government is working to formulate its own plans for when and if the next influenza pandemic strikes. And according to public health officials, the world is due for another pandemic.

In June, The University of North Carolina General Administration offices held a pandemic flu planning workshop in Raleigh. At that meeting, each of the 16 UNC-system schools was charged with drafting a plan for how that campus would deal with a pandemic influenza outbreak. The deadline was Nov.1 for submitting the draft to UNC General Administration.

Bill Koch and Tom Pohlman in Environmental Health and Safety were tapped as ECU’s point people for forming ECU’s response plan as part of the ECU Pandemic Influenza Steering Committee, which included Jolene Jernigan, RN, of Student Health Services and Dr. Marian Swinker of ECU Prospective Health. Once drafted, the plan was brought before a planning team consisting of key faculty and staff to provide specifics to the plan.

“I feel really good about (our plan),” said Pohlman. “Our planning team got interested and focused participation from departments about how they need to plan. Some other schools got a reaction from faculty and staff of wanting to bury their heads in the sand.”

Unlike some fellow UNC-system schools, ECU had the experience of Hurricane Floyd and its aftermath flooding to see what needed to be done to prepare the university for the next emergency, he said. “Floyd was a catalyst for a lot of emergency planning. And the discovery of what kind of emergency planning works at ECU.”

“We’ve learned you plan based on expected scenarios, but you adapt as it develops,” Pohlman said.

During the planning meetings at ECU, Koch and Pohlman invited representatives from various departments that would be on the front lines of dealing with students, if the university had to close, and the day-to-day operational logistics of a closed university with open medical school clinics.

One big decision made during the meetings was that College Hill Suites would serve as housing for students who couldn’t leave campus to return home, such as international students. It’s believed that airline travel will be highly restricted if a pandemic hits. And approximately 100 students would need housing, plus the 13 residence hall coordinators.

College Hill Suites features two bedrooms and a common area with a kitchenette, so students would have access to heat soup and the like. And the individual bathrooms allow for more social distancing than hall bathrooms that are in most residence halls.

“We think we’re as prepared as we can be at this point,” said Lynn Roeder, interim dean of students.

Pohlman said UNC General Administration was focused on having a draft plan from each university in place by this flu season.

“It’s important to note that the university is not only working diligently on a plan to protect students, faculty and staff but also to maintain the integrity of the university while still providing critical services through our medical facilities,” he said.

Dr. Marian Swinker of ECU’s Department of Prospective Health said faculty, staff and students need to get in the habit of good hand-washing, whether this flu season is “the big one” or not.

“Most of these viruses are spread by the respiratory route and by hand-to-face contact. Someone sneezes into their hand, touches a doorknob, and then you come along 10 minutes later and open that door. If you touch your nose or rub your eyes, then you’re opening yourself up to being infected,” she said.

The university may also implement “social distancing” as a precaution to spreading the virus. Social distancing would mean avoiding mass gatherings, such as athletic events, lectures or classes. The local health director would close public schools and ask non- essential businesses to close for a few days to prevent person-to-person contact. People would be asked to stay at home similar to a “snow day.”

Masks would become routine for all clinical staff during patient care and for many others on campus who work in close contact (within three feet) of ill persons, she said.

“It’s going to be a very challenging time, not just for students and faculty but also for administration to decide the best route to go for students and the university,” Pohlman said.

“The issue is not if this happens, but when this happens. It will not be a normal influenza infection. We don’t know when or by what virus,” he said.


This page originally appeared in the Dec. 8, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at