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Samantha Colvin, LPN, with Maxim Healthcare (right) gives a flu shot to Keisha Brown with ECU’s Human Resources department during a flu shot clinic held at Student Health Services Oct. 9 and 10. (Photos by Jeannine Manning Hutson)

 

ECU Makes Preparations for Potential Pandemic Flu

By Jeannine Manning Hutson

In September, a “dry run” of a pandemic flu outbreak was held as a tabletop exercise at East Carolina University.

Students were leaving campus in droves after frantic calls from their parents; Student Health Services was seeing as many patients as possible every day; classes had to be canceled.

And then things really got bad.

Participating were the university’s pandemic response group and executive group (Crisis Communication Team) along with members of the Pitt County Health Department and the N.C. Regional Public Health Regional Surveillance Team (PHRST).

At the end of the event, Bill Koch and Tom Pohlman of ECU’s Environmental Health and Safety Office said that they thought it went well, but it showed there was still work to be done.

“These tabletop drills are important because every time we conduct one, we find additional areas of the plan that need a little more attention,” Pohlman said.

“Everyone needs to be aware that this is a situation that could happen and needs to be prepared both at work and at home,” he said.

Next on the agenda, Pohlman said, will be addressing those issues that were identified during the tabletop exercise and looking at critical departments to make sure they are developing their own continuity operations plan.

The following questions and responses address the issues associated with a potential pandemic flu outbreak.

Q: What is ECU doing to prepare for a pandemic flu outbreak?

A. ECU has appointed a pandemic flu steering group and a larger response group from key departments. These groups are outlining the policies and procedures the university needs to plan for and respond to a pandemic flu event.

These plans and policies are based on guidelines provided by World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and University of North Carolina – General Administration (UNC-GA).

As part of this planning, each department in the university is required to complete its own Pandemic Flu Continuity of Operations Plan (at http://www.ecu.edu/oehs/EmergencyProcedures/BCP2007.doc) to help prepare it for such an event.

The key is for everyone to develop a plan that allows for social distancing while still providing the essential functions of the university.

The pandemic response group and the university executive group (Crisis Communication Team) completed a tabletop exercise with members of the Pitt County Health Department and the N.C. Regional Public Health Regional Surveillance Team (PHRST). More information will be distributed to help educate the campus community.

Q: What are the chances that the U.S. might have a pandemic flu outbreak?

A: History has shown that an average of three influenza pandemics affect the world each century. We cannot predict what years these might occur but can definitely say that we can expect to be affected by a pandemic sometime in the near to fairly near future.

Q: What should students, staff and faculty do to prepare?

There are two areas of preparation; personal preparations and business continuity preparations.

Personal preparations include:

• Learning about seasonal and pandemic flu
• Getting an annual flu shot
• Gathering a two-week supply of non-perishable food and medications
• Making alternate plans for day care should public day care facilities be directed to close
• Make plans to continue your children’s education from home with books and activities as your child’s teacher advises.
• Learn to cough/sneeze in your sleeve or tissue (http://www.coughsafe.com/media.html)
• Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water or sanitizing gel
• Stock up on cold and flu medications
• Stay at home if you are sick to prevent the spread of the flu.

Business continuity preparations include:

• Insuring your class objectives can be completed using Blackboard
• Insuring your personal computer can connect with the university systems that you need to complete course work or work from home
• Know what work you can complete from home and prepare supplies/references as needed.

Q: If a pandemic flu outbreak occurs in the U.S., will ECU automatically close? How will that decision about closing be made? And who makes that decision?

A: When a pandemic flu occurs, WHO and the CDC will be watching the spread of the illness with the hope of containing and stopping the spread. If this is not possible and the illness reaches the U.S., ECU will close when ordered to close by the governor, the UNC General Administration, or the Pitt County health director. The chancellor also has authority to close the university to encourage social distancing, if he feels it is in the best interest of the students’ and staff’s health and safety. The university is coordinating this effort with NCSU and other UNC institutions.

Annual flu shots provide some protection from potential pandemic flu.

Q: If ECU closes during the academic year, will courses be completed online?

A: ECU does have plans to complete as many courses online as possible through Blackboard. This is why it is highly recommended that all faculty and students ensure they are able to connect to ECU Blackboard from home to continue course work. Some courses may be taught by online video presentation. Some may use e-mail or other means.

Q: If ECU closes for students, who still reports for work?

A: There are some departments and employees who are “critical” to the operation of the university even if it is closed. Each division should decide which departments and/or functions are “critical” for the continuation of the university. Critical operations may include clinics, security, information technology, utilities, and some other support functions. Divisions and departments should identify critical functions, assign employees to maintain those functions, and cross train at least two additional employees to provide back-up should the primary staff be unable to perform their duties.

Q: What are other UNC-system schools doing to prepare?

A: Every institution in the UNC system is doing the same planning and preparations as ECU; however, each is identifying their own unique issues and addressing them to meet their own needs. There have been system-wide meetings and the effort is being coordinated.

Q: What if Pitt County Schools close because of pandemic flu and I have to stay home with my young children? Can I telecommute?

A: Telework agreements and assignments should be arranged between the employees and their supervisors prior to a pandemic flu closure. Human Resources has an agreement document available and is working on a policy to insure fairness.

Q: What are some of the best ways people can protect themselves from the flu?

A: The best protection from seasonal flu is to get a flu shot early in the season. You can also protect yourself through frequent hand washing, proper cough/sneeze etiquette and through social distancing (avoiding crowds and crowded places like stores, buses, planes, schools, daycare). At work we can maintain social distancing by keeping three to four feet separation from others.

Q: It’s believed that if a pandemic flu outbreak occurs, it will begin in Asia. How long do experts believe it will take for the virus to travel and spread throughout the U.S. once it’s in Asia?

A: This all depends on the ability of health responders to contain the spread of the flu. Once it spreads beyond the containment efforts, modern transportation is expected to allow for the rapid spread of the illness. It may only take a week or two to reach the U.S. and possibly less to spread through the U.S.

Q: If a pandemic influenza outbreak occurs in the U.S., how long might it last?

A: CDC is advising to prepare for a six- to eight-week surge in flu cases. They also believe that these surges may come in several waves. This means that there may be a six- to eight-week period of flu which tapers off for several months before the next six to eight weeks of flu begins.

4/23/07
This page originally appeared in the October 26, 2007 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/Arch.cfm.