Director's update: Fall 2018

No Ghost Town Here: Annual Planning for Pandemic Influenza

In his latest book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, my friend and colleague Mike Osterholm calls influenza “the king of infectious diseases” due to the ever-changing nature of the virus through mutation, the fact that seasonal influenza leads to more deaths than car accidents in some years in the U.S., and the constant possibility that a mutated influenza strain will cause a global pandemic.

Sign that reads: Sorry we're closed!Although our department develops plans and protocols for a wide range of health scenarios, each fall we pull out the campus influenza response plan and ask “are we ready this year”? Our campus has a very robust plan for pandemic response developed after a multi-year planning and exercise program launched in 2005. At that time, I recall community partners asking: “Won’t the university just close, turning the campus into a ghost town?” It’s a fair question, and the answer highlights why our campus is not your typical worksite or school setting.

We cannot just close our doors for the following reasons:

International Travel
Our campus is home to many international students and scholars, offers a host of study abroad programs all across the globe, and supports staff and faculty who travel to remote locations for research and outreach programs all over the world. Since many outbreaks and pandemics are first seen in other countries, systems to support existing travelers and assess the safety of planned travel must be maintained or likely expanded. We also must maintain our community in support of international colleagues who may not be allowed to travel home.

University Housing
An estimated 400-600 students may need to continue living on campus even if classes are cancelled and residence halls are closed. In addition to international students, this may include out-of-state students, and those who are ill. Plans have been developed for meeting their ongoing needs for an extended period including lodging, meals, health and general care and support.

University Research
Maintaining our affiliated hospitals and clinics during a pandemic seems like a “no brainer,” but many patients also rely on our clinical research, such as important clinical trials. Our campus is also home to tens of thousands of research animals whose welfare is an important priority. Maintaining our research infrastructure is vitally important to human and animal health. In addition, some laboratory research cannot simply be discontinued abruptly without the loss of years’ worth of valuable information, or in many cases, due to important safety reasons.

Boynton Health leadership teamTo meet all of the needs of our community, the campus pandemic influenza response plan includes response strategies for various anticipated stages of a pandemic across a multitude of other operational areas including health services, housing, dining, facilities, public safety, and communications. In June, our team met with Boynton Health senior leaders to discuss coordinating all of the moving parts during a pandemic and their important role through a scenario-based tabletop exercise. As always, Boynton Health personnel are an impressive bunch! Newer staff appreciated knowing more about how all the university departments work together during a public health emergency. It was a great reminder that even the most complete and eloquent plan is only a stack of paper, it’s the people that make it work. We are looking forward to another great year on campus with all the great people (students, staff, and faculty) that make this such a wonderful and healthy place.

Go Gophers!

Jill DeBoer, Director
Academic Health Center Office of Emergency Response

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