December 10, 2009 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
We began planning, early this year, a feature story on what would happen if a pandemic were to hit a college campus. By early spring, it looked like a possibility. By September, it looked inevitable.
When the first case of the H1N1 flu virus was discovered in Southern California in April, health officials thought it was unusual, but something they could hacndle. When a second case turned up in a different location in the state, officials were alarmed. "The second case was highly unusual," said Dr. Gilberto Chavez, state epidemiologist and chief of California's Center for Infectious Diseases.
It was known then as the swine flu, but it was soon found to be a combination of swine, avian and human virus -- thus the official term, H1N1. In many ways, the threat posed by the virus dominated emergency planning and business continuity discussions throughout the year.
In May, Emergency Management, a sister publication of Government Technology, looked at the unique challenges facing colleges and universities as thei potental for pandemic rushed toward reality.
Questions were raised about whether dormitories and even entire schools should be closed, or if infected students should be quarantined. For some, the inevitability of a pandemic and the chaos that follows was coming to fruition.
"I have been in this business for almost 20 years, and I remember 15 years ago sitting in meetings and trying to talk to people about the danger of having a pandemic, and people couldn't grasp it -- they just couldn't see it," said Valerie Lucus, emergency and business continuity manager of the University of California (UC) at Davis. "I think the H5N1 [avian flu] scare we all had about three years ago brought it more into the consciousness. People recognize it as a hazard that they really need to think about and address for themselves."
Technology tools quickly emerged to help cope with the threat. For instance, UC Ready, a Web-based business continuity tool developed by UC at Berkeley, lets schools in the UC system keep pandemic plans current. "Since it's online, you only have to go in and do it once," Lucus told Emergency Management magazine. "Then it's easy to keep up-to-date and it collects information in a more consistent way. We can pull the information out and it's sorted."
In addition, researchers at Georgia Tech's School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) created a model that simulates the spread of a pandemic geographically and across time. "This is a large-scale simulation model," said Pinar Keskinocak, a developer and ISyE associate professor. "We essentially simulate each person in a population according to age groups and social groups -- such as households, school groups, work groups and community interaction. Taking all of these factors into account, the simulation model mimics the way the disease will spread both geographically and over time."
The developers feed information from the U.S. Census Bureau into the model, which has two forms: simulation and optimization. The simulation model gives a visual view of the disease and the optimization model is used to help decision-making. The optimization model, for example, could be used by the Red Cross to calculate food distribution planning by showing the best places to open facilities, such as food banks, and how to allocate resources over time.
Officials on college campuses also grappled with whether to close campuses or quarantine students. They found that voluntary quarantining significantly reduced the spread of the virus and might be a better option than school closures. "