Pandemic Response Planning: What COVID-19 Is Teaching Us About Risk

Preparedness and response programs are based on identification, assessment and characterization of risks. Accurate data help in the development of more effective facility-specific preparedness and response strategies, processes, procedures and plans. While we have had some recent experiences with pandemics (H1N1 and SARS) over the last eighteen years and many have done complex risk assessment transport modelling, COVID-19 is a “worst-case scenario” global pandemic playing out in real-time. Consequently, governments, the regulated community, and EH&S professionals are learning new information daily on the extent and severity of risks posed by a pandemic. We are also experiencing severe consequences as a result of insufficient preparedness planning, delayed response implementation, miscommunication of risks and prevention strategies, and uncoordinated response efforts. 

At the macro level, in less than four months COVID-19 has confirmed that: an uncontained, easily transmitted virus contracted or released in a single geography can have severe diverse global adverse impacts if not immediately contained; unless the risk of a pandemic and guidance on appropriate response are effectively and transparently communicated, appropriate action will not occur; governments must act appropriately immediately once it receives relevant data if the impacts from a potential pandemic are to be minimized.  What we still do not know are the risks and severity of those risks that may soon ensue as a result of the world implementing extended lockdown measures simultaneously.

Risks and responses vary by industry

While there may be nothing an industry, let alone an individual facility, can do to address the global macro risks, COVID-19 is providing harsh but valuable lessons in risk identification and characterization at the market and facility levels. For example, many U.S. hospitals, healthcare providers, and first responders are significantly overburdened and their health and safety is at risk because many people were not identified as infected (and therefore not isolated and contact traced) in a timely manner due to a scarcity of test kits or analysis capacity, there are/were not enough ventilators available to treat all of the seriously ill patients, and there was not enough personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals. These risks could have been anticipated and better planned for as demonstrated by more effective responses in some countries. 

Most industries are struggling to address shared challenges posed by a pandemic, from the difficulty of providing a safe work environment for employees to employee isolation and inability to effectively perform duties, supply chain and distribution disruptions, lack of customer demand, inability to switch to remote operations, government restrictions, overall uncertainty, and more. Then there are risks that are industry specific or have a disproportionate impact depending on industry. For example, Colleges and universities have had to grapple with inaccurate accounting of students remaining on campus, implementing infection control procedures, inadequate mental health assistance, whether to allow on-going research, transitioning to remote learning, among other issues. Other examples include offshore oil rigs shutting down due to the inability to implement social distancing, agriculture being severely impacted because its traditional work force is not available and is unlikely to be available for the foreseeable future, construction shutdowns and non-shutdowns, and many more. 

Pandemic preparedness planning

We now have a much greater understanding of risks posed by a pandemic and we will learn more during upcoming phases. This might include risks associated with hastily shuttering facilities (security, fire, freezing pipes, flood) for an extended period, abnormal start-up operations, and the impacts on businesses and communities that cannot resume operations. COVID-19 has been devastating to virtually every aspect of what had been our “normal” up until early 2020. This devastation has provided valuable data on the risk identity, assessment, and characterization processes during a pandemic and will continue to do so. It is critical we learn from this experience so we can better prepare and respond to the next one.

Below we outline the basic components of pandemic preparedness planning and in the next series of posts will provide a deeper dive into developing the strategies, procedures and criteria for each component that EH&S professionals can apply to their facilities. While there is no required structure or plan organization, virtually all preparedness plans will address the following pre-planning topics: 

  1. Definitions, Pandemic Phases and Assumptions
  2. Risk Assessment
  3. Risk Management
  4. Roles and Responsibilities
  5. Plan Activation
  6. Business Operations/Continuity Planning
  7. Communication
  8. Plan Activation

This outline identifies the major elements for developing an effective pandemic preparedness plan (we will address the response elements after further discussing each preparedness element). Each plan needs to be facility- and organization-specific, but regardless of the industry the essential elements of preparation to be considered are similar and this format can help guide your planning.


Adam Steinman National Practice Leader Environmental Compliance

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