Swine flu scare provides real-time preparedness training

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Infection control

Swine flu scare provides real-time preparedness training

After reading this article, you will be able to:

  • Explain why pandemic preparedness deserves national collaboration
  • Identify reasons healthcare workers would stay home during a pandemic

For years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has proclaimed that the potential of a pandemic is not a question of if, but when. Hospitals around the country and the world may be heeding that advice more urgently after the recent outbreaks of novel influenza A H1N1, commonly known as swine flu.

The scare may have served as a wake-up call for many facilities and a pandemic planning practice round for others.

The primary concern regarding an influenza pandemic is that the nation’s resources will be exhausted, leaving hospitals on their own to deal with any problems concerning staff members or supplies.

“A pandemic is such a potentially overwhelming situation in terms of the resources needed to respond that it’s not the same as a regular disaster because regular disasters tend to be more local,” says Terri Rebmann, PhD, RN, CIC, associate director of curricular affairs and assistant professor at the Saint Louis University School of Public Health.

Another chief concern during any disaster involves the “worried well.” This group consists of patients who flood hospitals and healthcare centers thinking they are sick or injured. This is particularly apparent during a pandemic, when fears of sickness escalate and even the smallest sniffle can send people running to the emergency room.

This creates numerous complications as it floods the system and forces hospitals to do triage quickly to determine who is and is not sick, says Rebmann.

Healthcare workers must step back from the constant barrage of news accounts, sift through the facts, and deal strictly with the epidemiological evidence at hand, says Jim Kendig, MS, CHSP, CHCM, HEM, LHRM, vice president of safety, security, and clinical/courier transportation at Health First in Melbourne, FL.

A legitimate concern for healthcare workers is their own safety during an influenza pandemic. Although numbers and percentages vary, some studies have reported that as many as 50% of healthcare workers would not show up to work during a pandemic for a variety of reasons, including concern for their own or their family’s health.

This was the reason Kendig pushed forward a historically based pandemic flu plan, the first in the state of Florida. The plan details specific hospital procedures regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) and isolation precautions that align with the pandemic phases announced by the World Health Organization.

“That’s why we did so much work on it initially, because what the surveys were telling us was, ‘If you take care of me, I’m much more apt to come to work,’ ” says Kendig. “ ‘If you don’t have a plan, if you haven’t articulated that plan, or if you haven’t done anything, the likelihood of me not coming to work and putting myself at risk, and therefore my family at risk, is greater.’ ”

But there are more factors than just the fear of infection. School closures or public transportation limitations can affect whether employees come to work. A nurse who is a single parent will probably not come to work if he or she needs to care for a child.

Therefore, in addition to providing proper PPE for workers, hospitals need to advise them to make a personal pandemic plan to assess any conflicts ahead of time, Rebmann says.


Adapted from Briefings on Infection Control, July 1, 2009, HCPro, Inc.