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Penn State Nursing Professional Guides Centre Region Infectious Disease Plan

by on June 07, 2016 6:00 AM

In the event of a disaster, the Centre Region has long had plans in place that are regularly reviewed and exercised. But a Penn State nursing professional found that though these plans can include infectious hazards and disease outbreaks, disease management presents unique challenges that require special attention.

Shelley Haffner, University Health Services’ (UHS) infectious disease manager, found a need for a local infectious hazard and disease response plan while working on her master’s degree in homeland security with a public health preparedness option through Penn State’s World Campus.

While working on a project she found the area could benefit from a specific response plan for infectious hazards -- anything ranging from a flu outbreak to E.coli to Ebola. So last fall Haffner met with emergency managers from Penn State and the Centre Region Council of Governments to begin discussing a plan and how UHS could help in the event of such an emergency.

“Our area did and still does have an ‘all-hazards’ plan, which can encompass infectious hazards.” Haffner said. “However, my experience in infection prevention and disease management made me realize that characteristics of infectious hazards are different and a plan geared to the unique characteristics of infectious pathogens and hazards might positively impact the public’s safety as well as the safety of responders. Hospitals often have these plans, but they are not that common in outpatient health care facilities, nor are outpatient clinics or university student health centers typically included in the community plans.”

Haffner’s work in UHS already focuses on community impacts of infectious disease. She is responsible for developing procedures to prevent communicable diseases, while also tracking them and educating staff on diseases of concern. In addition to educating student groups and running vaccine clinics, she tracks diseases and reports concerns to state health department and Mount Nittany Medical Center, and works with Penn State Strategic Communications to provide information to the public.

“It is not just the extreme diseases, such as Ebola, that I need to be concerned about,” Haffner said. “I also need to look for more common diseases that are likely to spread quickly.”

Haffner regularly tracks diseases like STDs, vaccine-preventable diseases such as whooping cough, chicken pox and flu. Penn State is a CDC sentinel reporting site for flu-like symptoms. Any of these diseases can happen at any time, but many are seasonal, so Haffner is on the lookout for unusual activity.

“It’s not unusual to see several flu cases popping up during flu season in February. However, if you see flu cases in July, that’s an unusual event,” she said. “Infectious disease surveillance is helpful in determining unusual illness patterns and developing outbreaks. We have students, faculty, and staff who come to our area from different parts of the country and world. As a result, I try to keep an eye on what’s happening outside of our community.”

In conducting research, Haffner had difficulty finding an infectious hazard plan in a university community similar to the Centre Region.

“When living and working in a community such as ours, where we have a large university surrounded by the local community, the likelihood of a communicable disease outbreak spreading between these two areas is great,” she said. “To best coordinate efforts, a community plan is needed. One of the ways that a community plan works is to identify roles and actions of specific agencies and key people. One goal of emergency preparedness is the safety of the community and responders through preparing, planning, mitigating, responding, and recovering from unusual events.”

After reviewing literature and talking with Penn State Emergency Management Planner Pam Soule and Centre Region Emergency Management Coordinator Shawn Kaufmann, Haffner shared her findings with Dr. Robin Oliver, UHS director and chair of the Infectious Hazards Planning Group (IHPG). Oliver encouraged her to move forward on community planning.

Haffner said that while a working plan is in place at UHS, an overall community plan and training processes are being developed. The IHGP is in the process of developing and implementing the plan throughout the community.

The plan outlines incident command during a given disaster, local, state and federal resources, pathogen characteristics and necessary personal protective equipment.

“I hesitate to say that any emergency response plan is ‘completed’ as it is always a work in progress, to build on and improve existing information,” Haffner said. “One good way to determine the effectiveness and areas for improvement is to 'exercise the plan' by conducting drills and training exercises. Working together toward a shared goal of improving community resilience benefits all of us.”


Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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