Wake Forest preparing for potential influenza pandemic

By Kevin Cox
April 25, 2006

Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch has directed administrators to develop a highly detailed plan that will prepare Wake Forest for the impact of a potential influenza pandemic on the university's students, faculty and staff, as well as its activities inside and outside the classroom. International concerns about an expanding avian flu virus prompted the planning.

Two main groups are developing the plan. The Pandemic Preparedness Planning Committee, which began meeting last December, is addressing issues ranging from staging a large-scale vaccination clinic on campus to keeping the university's administrative activities uninterrupted if offices campus-wide are short-staffed due to illness. Another group is examining ways to continue educating students during an influenza pandemic, even if such an event forced the closing of campus to classes. Their efforts will be merged, eventually, into one plan.

"Wake Forest must be prepared, as best as possible, for the possibility of an influenza pandemic," Hatch said. "Federal and state health officials are urging universities and colleges to begin planning now. The planning takes considerable time and the efforts of many people campus-wide, so we can't afford to wait until the last minute."

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services describes an influenza pandemic as an "extreme infectious disease outbreak."

"It is the sheer scope of influenza pandemics, with their potential to rapidly spread and overwhelm societies and cause illnesses and deaths among all age groups, which distinguishes pandemic influenza from other emerging infectious disease threats and makes pandemic influenza one of the most feared emerging infectious disease threats," states a U.S. Health & Human Services Web site.

Recently, news media around the world have called attention to the expanding spread of the avian H5N1 virus, which has killed poultry flocks in Asia, Africa and Europe. A small number of people overseas have contracted the illness from birds. While the virus has not spread from human to human, experts fear that the virus might undergo a change that would make such infection possible. Consequently, the avian virus is considered "the greatest current pandemic threat," according to the Web site.

Wake Forest Provost William C. Gordon and Vice President Kenneth A. Zick directly oversee the university's preparations. Gordon will be working closely with Wake Forest's academic deans to create options for keeping educational activities on track in the event of an influenza pandemic.

Zick, who chairs the university's Crisis Management Team, formed the Pandemic Preparedness Planning Committee late last year. The committee is working now to help administrative departments — ranging from Facilities Management to Financial and Accounting Services — to draw up their own departmental plans that will be woven into a comprehensive university plan. Already, the committee has written a first draft of a plan, which is expected to grow longer and undergo numerous changes.

"Ultimately, Wake Forest will have a plan that will address the potential effects of an influenza pandemic on all of the university's activities," Zick said. "We can't afford to leave anything out."

The plan also addresses the university's activities that occur in places far away from Winston-Salem. For instance, Wake Forest has three residential study centers in Europe — Worrell House in London, Flow House in Vienna, and Casa Artom in Venice. A pandemic in Europe would require the university immediately to address the operation of those sites, where students travel to study with a Wake Forest professor for a semester.

The university also routinely has students studying for a semester or longer around the world through Wake Forest international study programs and in programs operated by other universities and colleges. The plan under development must also address how to respond to those students' needs in the event of a pandemic.

Mary Gerardy, who chairs the pandemic committee, said that its members are meeting with local governmental officials to learn more about their preparations while also gathering information about planning by North Carolina and federal officials.

"We will also look closely at what other schools around the country are doing," said Gerardy, associate vice president for student life. "Universities and colleges everywhere understand that they need to address this matter now. We can't move slowly on this."