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ASU steps up preparedness for flu pandemic


April 03, 2007

Nearly every Monday afternoon for the past year, an unlikely group of 40 ASU staffers gathered in the second-floor conference room at University Services Building (USB) to discuss a likely topic: the flu.

From Facilities Management to Residential Life to the Office of the Provost, these employees represented nearly 20 departments from all four campuses. Together, they developed a comprehensive management plan in the event of a pandemic at ASU.

The need to develop such a plan was determined in 2005, when Leon Igras, director of Environmental Health & Safety, listened to presenters from Harvard and others about pandemic planning at an annual directors meeting. Subsequently, a task force was formed at ASU, and an initial plan was presented to ASU President Michael Crow in May 2006.

Gary Septon, who was director of Campus Health Service in 2006 and has since retired, was appointed as pandemic coordinator and formed the Pandemic Influenza Working Group. The goal of this group was to establish ASU's final plan to address:

• Criteria for the university to cancel public events and suspend classes to send students home to a less-risky environment before the cancellation of public transportation.

• Influenza medical care for students and the university community.

• Housing and food service for those ill and well students on all ASU campuses who are unable to go home.

• Essential university functions and personnel that would be called upon to provide health care, security, housing and food service, maintain integrity of research and university infrastructure.

“ASU is a large public institution that has a responsibility to provide for the health and welfare of its students and employees and integrity of its research in the face of public health emergencies,” Septon says.

Septon says a pandemic most likely would begin in Asia , with the emergence of a new flu strain that would be easily transmissible from person to person. That new strain could be H5-N1, better known as “bird flu,” which causes an illness more serious than the seasonal flu but is not yet easily transmissible from person to person.

“Most public health experts believe that a pandemic is a certainty, and that the question is not if it will occur, but when,” he says.

University campuses could be severely affected because of their population densities, openness to the surrounding community, and the number of students, faculty and staff who engage in international travel, Septon says. He says the group also realized quickly that, if a pandemic were to occur in Arizona, ASU would not be the only public entity affected; therefore, resources from government municipalities could be scarce.

“In our discussions with state and county governments, we learned that ASU will need to have its own plan and supplies to keep the university operational as the state and county will be engaged in response to other areas,” Igras says.

Thus, ASU embarked on building its own plan for the potential health dilemma.

“We take the well being of our students, employees and their families very seriously. In the event of a pandemic flu outbreak, ASU's multiple-campus plan will protect the health and safety of our community while maintaining the essential functions of the university,” says Betty Capaldi, provost of the university.

Since the plan was approved by Capaldi, Crow and the executive council in January, the working group has been making strides in implementation. The pandemic flu Web site is now active and serves as a resource for the university community on flu facts, preparation tips, prevention methods and the ASU pandemic plan.

Allan Markus, who resumed Septon's position as the new director of Campus Health Service and pandemic coordinator for ASU in January, says the group is in its second phase of planning, which includes testing the plan's feasibility.

“We're incorporating input from students, faculty and staff to work on the mechanics of responding to pandemic situations and will test our response plans through tabletop exercises,” he says.

The Pandemic Influenza Working Group also continues to monitor local, national and international health organizations' updates on the H5-N1 virus to keep university leadership and the community informed of any changes in flu outbreaks across the globe and developments in treatment. Additionally, the group has purchased supplies – including masks, medication and vaccinations – to treat the university community.

“The key to preparedness is cooperation from all members of our community – faculty, students and staff – in preparing for a pandemic,” Markus says. “We've made our first step in preparedness by building a plan, and now we need to make this a university-wide effort through awareness, prevention and collaboration.”

For more information, and to view the approved pandemic plan, visit the Web site www.asu.edu.