Resources to Make Your Campus H1N1-Ready
From “Business Briefs” department in November 2009 issue of Business Officer
By Tadu Yimam
Outbreaks of the 2009 H1N1 (“swine flu”) virus are already being reported. Is your institution prepared to continue functioning effectively should the virus hit your campus?
To address the many operational challenges a pandemic raises for higher education institutions, NACUBO, CUPA-HR, and ACHA presented the September 15 webcast “H1N1 Campus Management: Perspectives from Human Resources, the Business Office, and Student Health Services." James E. Lyons Sr., secretary of higher education for the Maryland Higher Education Commission, moderated the event, which featured three representatives of Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Anita Barkin, director of student health services; Barbara Smith, associate vice president and chief human resources officer; and Deborah Moon, vice president for finance and chief financial officer. All three offered recommendations for managing and maintaining a safe and healthy campus, and they emphasized the need for effective communication across all levels of campus management.
To help contain the H1N1 virus, Barkin recommended postponement of large social gatherings whenever possible and offered techniques for social distancing, such as refraining from shaking hands, and modifying work and classroom spaces by moving desks further apart. She cited examples of different responses—and their related effects—taken by various cities during the 1918 outbreak, including the following:
- New York City. An early and sustained response, as advised by the NYC Public Health Response Team, called for strictly enforced isolation and quarantine and staggered business hours over a 10-week period. These practices resulted in the lowest excess death rate (that is, deaths that occur before average life expectancy) for any city on the East Coast during the time period reviewed. Although the city did not officially close schools, absentee rates were greater than 45 percent during the peak of the pandemic.
- St. Louis.The city minimized fatalities through layered and sustained interventions early in the pandemic, including school closures, quarantines, bans on public gatherings, and so forth.
- Pittsburgh. In contrast, the city was well into its outbreak before implementing interventions. As a result, it experienced the highest excess death rate of any of the 43 cities reviewed.
The Case for Isolation
Barkin underscored how critical it is for students and faculty to understand that isolation and self-isolation will flatten the surge of the illness. Campuses nationwide should prepare to offer sick students accommodations on campus with alternative, isolated living quarters and access to meals and health care. At Carnegie Mellon, for example, ill students who live off campus are urged to stay home and avoid contact with others, while students in residential housing who do not come from areas near Pittsburgh are being taken care of by staff members in student health services, housing, dining, and student affairs.
Among other tips for caring for ill students, Barkin recommended (1) determining a screening protocol for use by emergency personnel, (2) setting up with resident life staff an H1N1 dispatch alert system, and (3) securing infirmary locations and determining additional areas and resources within your community that can be used, if necessary.
Smith noted that the impact of H1N1 on faculty and staff may mean an increased workload for all employees coupled with a reduction in the staff available to accomplish the work. She encouraged campuses to identify essential functions and key staff members, begin “depth charting” to determine backup staffing, examine short-term staffing solutions and the possibility for employees to work outside their job descriptions, and develop return-to-work guidelines.
Smith also encouraged campuses to review internal policies surrounding emergency closings, flex-time, working from home, and the family medical leave (FMLA) and fair labor standards acts. With regard to FMLA and FLSA in particular, ensure that HR staff are equipped to monitor and document these situations. Finally, campuses with child-care facilities require special protocols to limit exposure to young children and must establish real expectations among family and staff regarding the institution's response in the event of an outbreak.
Facilities and Financial Functions
Moon emphasized the need for sound facility planning, including developing temporary, permanent, or leased infirmaries for isolated students and making sure facilities are available for quick and deliberate repurposing.
On the financial operations side, advised Moon, address systems infrastructure and key areas of continuity (payroll and accounts payable, for example) sooner rather than later. Ask the following questions to direct your efforts: Do students, faculty, and staff have remote access to university information? Who can replace the roles of functional and technical staff if they become ill? Are practices in place to keep payments and payroll running and to meet regulatory and contractual obligations?
Keep Everyone in the Loop
Ultimately, communication is essential to restraining a pandemic. Moon advised the following:
- Ensure that campus police and emergency personnel have the proper communication tools, training, and equipment.
- Create a phone bank using social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook.
- Develop strong messaging early, and distribute ongoing messages about good hygiene and emergency planning.
- Become a partner with the larger community in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus. For instance, your campus can become a flu surveillance site and a point of distribution for the vaccine. Contact your local health department to learn more.
Finally, Barkin reminded participants not to overlook the obvious. Secure surgical masks, hand sanitizers, and other important supplies, since these items tend to become scarce once an outbreak hits, and since the prices only inflate with demand.
SUBMITTED BY Tadu Yimam, policy analyst, NACUBO, 202.861.2541