Penn State

Penn State health professional looking to implement infectious disease plan in Centre Region

It’s always good to be prepared for an emergency. Fire, blackout, snowstorm, flood. It’s good to expect the unexpected.

But what if the unexpected is a little more mundane? What if it’s as simple as the flu?

Shelley Haffner says the littlest things can become big problems without a good plan.

That’s why she wants to see an infectious disease plan put in place for the Centre Region.

A manager for infectious diseases and professional development at Penn State’s University Health Services, Haffner says she was studying for her master’s in homeland security’s public health preparedness option through the World Campus when she realized the need.

Things like the current Zika threat or the 2015 Ebola outbreak get a lot of attention, but Haffner said the threat doesn’t have to be that exotic.

“Zika is certainly something we have to look out for but for me, I’m looking at things worse than that,” she said.

That’s were the flu comes in.

“We know that in 2009, we went through an influenza pandemic,” Haffner said.

That was the year thousands were hit by the H1N1 strain of swine flu. Almost 100 years ago, millions died in the global Spanish flu pandemic.

“If we get to a good human-to-human transmission point, influenza could be deadly,” Haffner said. “We should be always looking at anything happening in the world.”

Penn State, after all, has a global population. Students and faculty come from, and go to, every corner of the map to study and research.

Then there are the more localized threats, things like norovirus or salmonella, something foodborne or passed skin-to-skin.

“Infection control is important. In a university town, it’s an omnipresent concern,” said Steve Bair, of Centre Region Council of Governments. “It’s very important to the community.”

The state recognizes the need to plan for more than just tornadoes and active shooter scenarios. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has a lot of plans in place, including influenza and highly infectious animal diseases.

Haffner wants something more general, with the flexibility to adapt to the needs of different threats. That’s what is being talked about as she works with the university’s emergency management office and CRCOG.

A big part of the plan, no matter the outbreak, would be information.

“For instance, norovirus, we know, is highly infectious. It would be getting the message out to clean your hands, if you’re sick stay away from others, etc. Preventive strategies we can use to prevent and bring it under control quickly,” Haffner said.

At the same time, another important step would be keeping bad information from taking over.

“If we have an outbreak in the community, people need to be paying attention to public health announcements from reputable sources, not just things on the internet that may or may not be correct,” Haffner said.

Bair says COG and the university have worked together on similar projects in the past.

“Penn State and COG are joint partners. The two are absolutely linked,” he said.

For medical emergencies, he says, the goals are simple.

“Screen it. Prevent it. Find it. Treat it,” he said.

Haffner said good planning isn’t just for government agencies and large institutions.

“This is something everybody should be doing,” she said. “The government’s ready.gov has great information about emergency preparedness, but the response begins at an individual level.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce

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