Planning for the Avian Flu

Lately, the media has carried numerous articles about the Avian Flu. Articles that I have read focused largely on reports of new cases. Indonesia is the current“hot bed” for new cases, some of which have resulted in deaths.

The truth of the matter is that, at this time, researchers have not yet identified a single, verified case of this flu virus having been communicated among human beings. Therefore, researchers have not yet had access to the actual mutation of this virus from which we need protection. Even when they do discover something that might helps us, they already know that its application and availability will be very limited, at least for the first six months or so.

Why is this important to us in the Facilities business? The answer is simple: we need to prepare ourselves and our organizations for the arrival of the Avian Flu. The best that could happen is that it does not come. It is not substantially different, if we think about it, from preparing for an earthquake or other natural disaster. We prepare while hoping we will never need it.

Some of us may remember the flu pandemic that struck the United States in the mid-1950s. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of our population became infected, at any one time, by this nasty little bug. Some experts now predict that the Avian Flu pandemic could easily match the impact of that one. This means that, at any one time, we could be without a third of our staff for days or weeks at a time. At the same time, just as many of the students, faculty and other support staff will be away from the campus. Finally, our suppliers and the contractors that we will so desperately need will have similar challenges. As we prepare, we must keep in mind some realities or probabilities:

• If the pandemic hits, odds are that colleges and universities will need to lock their doors upon orders from state and/or local health officials. They may lock down places where large groups of individuals tend to congregate, including airports, bus stations and other forms of mass transportation, and hotels, among others.
• Even your healthy employees will want (and should be encouraged) to take care of their ill family members first, so that they can focus on institutional issues when they are able to work.
• Scientists are quite certain that this virus communicates only through direct contact, such as when someone expectorates or does not wash his/her hands. HVAC and fan systems will not play a role in the proliferation of this flu.
• We need to plan to operate with a drastically reduced staff. We should therefore reemphasize cross training, always a good idea in any case. We should make solid arrangements with contractors to assist to whatever degree they can when our own staff is insufficient and if the contractor(s) is still available. (We could approach general contractors already working at the institution to provide some of these critical services.)
• We need to identify and provide an inventory of critical materials and supplies that we may need during an extended campus closure.
• If health officials do close the campus, we must have arrangements in place to secure the residence halls if students are sent home (assuming they can get there). We must be able to secure other campus buildings and provide regular patrols. Since we have research buildings on campus, we must be aware that researchers may not have access to their labs, undoubtedly creating some volatile situations in more ways than we care to imagine.
• We should develop, if we do not already have it, a prioritized list of buildings, identifying which ones must get first response and at what level we will provide service.

It is easy to see that planning for a pandemic, such as the Avian Flu, is quite similar to planning for other types of hazardous events or emergency situations. One huge difference is that the initial impact will not be to our facilities. Instead, it will initially fall squarely on our people. If we do not have reasonable preparations in place before then, that void will have disastrous impacts on our buildings — if the H5N1 (Avian Flu) pandemic does in fact happen.

Planning and preparing for an event such as this is expensive. Not preparing is priceless.

For more information, access this Website: www.cdc.gov/flu/avian/gen-info/facts.htm. You should also access your own state’s health department Website.


Pete van der Have has recently retired as the assistant vice president for Plant Operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is working as an independent consultant. He can be reached at petevanderhave@msn.com.

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