Dal shapes pandemic plan

Dalhousie is drafting a pandemic plan modelled after a strategy crafted by the university’s medical school

Dal is considering allocating a facility for students who are struck by a pandemic but can't go home. (Photo: morgueFile)

Dal is considering allocating a facility for students who are struck by a pandemic but can't go home. (Photo: morgueFile)

Christian Ledwell had started his third year at Dalhousie University in fall 2006 when he was quarantined.

The university had released reports earlier in the summer about a mumps outbreak and encouraged students to get the vaccine. He had caught a cold for a few days, but the nurses at Dalhousie Health Services thought his glands were suspiciously swollen.

"The nurses decided it was best that I be quarantined for the weekend," explains Ledwell, now an English master's student at Dalhousie. "I was living in the residence at the University of King's College at the time, so King's set me up in a room in the basement of Alexandra Hall with two phones and a washroom."

Adding that King's treated him well during the arrangement, Ledwell found out three days later his mumps test came back negative.

At the time, Dalhousie didn't have a plan for dealing with any outbreaks. But that's not the case any more.

The university, which has over 15,000 students, is currently shaping a pandemic plan to deal with future outbreaks. This model is based on another recently completed plan headed by Dalhousie's medical school. The school's plan started shortly after Ledwell's experience, in January 2007, and was completed in October this year.

Charmaine Gaudet, director of communications for the medical school, says the preparations started coming together at this time because that's when the World Health Organization (WHO) was discussing pandemics.

"People were acknowledging the likelihood of a pandemic flu coming to North America," says Gaudet. "We basically began planning when it became apparent that we needed a plan."

Dr. Doug Sinclair, associate dean of continuing medical education, chaired a task force that convened in January 2007 to discuss the plan. The premise focused on the risks associated with medical students who have contact with ill patients, which could cause a serious virus to spread. The plan, explains Gaudet, is meant to keep students safe and prevent an influenza from growing.

"I'm hoping that what we can do for students is minimize the harm, so they stay healthy, as many as possible," she says. "At the same time, I hope that we can minimize the disruption to their education."

The influenza is divided into three stages. In the first and most dangerous stage, lasting from one to eight weeks and having the highest mortality rate, clinical staff are required to provide health care in hospitals and the community, while students and residents can assist with the care if they wish. Classes may stop in this stage and the university could close. The second stage, spanning from two to eight months, has a lower level of illness and most activities, such as surgeries, would continue. The third stage may see a second wave of influenza, but a vaccine may be available by this time.

Gaudet says the medical school would put the plan in place if a pandemic were heading to North America. The WHO would alert the continent two months prior to the expected outbreak.

"If you use the example of medical students, then you can just imagine in phase one we probably would cancel our program while the high point of the pandemic is there," says Gaudet. "We don't want to force our students into a situation where they're going to be exposed to the flu epidemic."

As for other Dalhousie students, like Ledwell, who could be affected by pandemic, the university is weighing its options. Gaudet says the task force has discussed if students are ill, the university would try to send 99.9 per cent of them home. But if they couldn't get home, then there could be alternatives - such as allocating facilities for these students.

"Dalhousie is working on some kind of strategy so that students who cannot go home but do not need to be hospitalized, they have a place where they can lay their heads," she says.

Charles Crosby, manager of media relations at Dalhousie, says the university is now expanding on the medical school's pandemic plan to create a more holistic strategy.

"Say a pandemic were to hit and a lot of different aspects, housing, security - everything would be impacted in some way," says Crosby. "Their role at this point is to put a plan together so that if and when something hits, the university is prepared to deal with it."

The university has brought these various units together, including communications staff and University of King's College administrators, and has sent a report to the university president, which involves drafting a plan.

Housing, says Crosby, is a critical concern.

"If there's a pandemic situation (in residence), you have both the issue of contagious diseases and finding space," says Crosby. "We also have these residences that could be seconded by the government as something that could be used for patients."

Crosby says the university is currently determining what to do with students who come from outside of the province if they're hit by a pandemic. The plan should be completed within the next 12 months.

Ledwell says he thinks it's an excellent idea, having gone through the quarantine process for the mumps.

"It is an extremely contagious disease that can affect you for your entire life," he says. "I think that having some kind of plan in place is absolutely necessary."


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