Pandemic Preparation. Are you Ready?
John B. Storer, P.E., President
Is your utility prepared for a pandemic? Hopefully, you have not become complacent due to recent threats that never materialized, such as the Avian Flu scare from a few years ago. Now we are facing the potential for a Swine Flu outbreak (H1N1) in addition to regular seasonal Flu. Statistically speaking, health care officials tend to believe we are due for a pandemic outbreak. It is important to break through the hysteria and understand the potential for a pandemic outbreak and be educated and prepared. As utility operators, we need to prepare for the worst, to ensure continuity of our operations.
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC), “No one can predict how a pandemic will affect us, but it will most likely last longer than other public health emergencies (months vs. days); a number of health care workers and first responders available to work will be reduced because of illness or needing to care for family members; and basic resources could be limited.
Possible examples include: given the high level of global travel, a pandemic virus may spread very quickly, leaving little time to prepare; medical supplies may be in short supply and unevenly distributed; there may be no vaccine for several months; medical facilities may be quickly overwhelmed; illness and panic may result in sudden shortages of personnel to provide community services such as health care and public safety; some workplaces and schools may be closed; and large gatherings may be banned”.
The information stresses that vaccines may be limited, or unavailable, key personnel may be absent due to their own illness or in caring for sick family members, and it is likely that key supplies may be unavailable or delayed. Sound ominous? Keep in mind that during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 an estimated 20 to 40 million people died around the world, including approximately 675,000 Americans. In Oxford County, the Maine National Guard recently held an exercise to quell a riot that might break out in the event of a mass rush for flu vaccines.
So how do you prepare for a pandemic? The most logical step would be to get vaccinated, but the H1N1 vaccine is currently only in production and not readily available. Additionally, members of the Maine WARN Steering Committee recently met with officials from the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), and they confirmed that water utility operators are not expected to be given priority with available vaccines. Vaccine priority will go to children, pregnant women, health care providers and emergency responders. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has tried to work with individual state public health officials to remind them that drinking water and wastewater utilities are classified as first responders under federal law. But don’t count on your status as a water utility operator to move you up the vaccine priority list.
Education and preparedness will be crucial to dealing with a pandemic. I strongly suggest you take time to review Maine CDC information regarding both a pandemic influenza outbreak, as well as just regular seasonal flu. The Maine WARN website (www.MEWARN.org) is currently being modified to include direct web links to the Maine CDC. The Maine WARN website will also include an important link to a document prepared by the Department of Homeland Security. It was developed specifically for the water and wastewater sector and deals with preparedness, response, and recovery from a pandemic influenza. It discusses items such as essential services, equipment, materials, and personnel. Maybe you are a large utility that can afford to lose 40 or 50% of your licensed operators, but what happens if you can’t receive critical water treatment chemicals? What happens if your office staff is out sick and can’t process bills or payroll? It’s all about being prepared and having a contingency plan.
In addition to developing a pandemic outbreak plan, you should consider developing a basic plan to avoid contracting the flu or spreading the flu. Trevor Hunt at the Bath Water District prepared a very basic plan that covers the essentials of good hygiene and common sense. The stated mission of the plan is “to prepare for and reduce its (pandemic outbreak) impact to the District, maintain day to day operations during and after an outbreak as best as possible and to become more ‘pandemic-resistant’ by being aware of prevention.”
I have contacted Trevor and he is willing to share his plan. Simply drop him a note or feel free to contact me. The sky may or may not be falling, but as responsible water system operators we have to expect the worst and prepare for the worst. We can always “hope” for the best, but by being educated and prepared, we can ensure the “best” of any possible scenario we might encounter.