COVID-19 has taught the world a lot of things that will be essential lessons learned for the next crises. The primary take-away for regulated entities and Environmental, Health & Safety (EH&S) professionals is that, across the board, everyone was woefully unprepared despite our relatively recent experiences with H1N1, Ebola and SARS. I mean EVERYONE: the regulated community; world, federal, state, and local governments; healthcare systems; colleges, universities and research institutions; insurance companies; PPE manufacturers; retailers; and virtually everyone but Netflix. Consequently, for the last several months, while an actual pandemic disease outbreak was exploding, we have all been playing catch-up to differing degrees and learning on the fly. While certain best-in-class organizations within all regulated markets were more prepared than their peers, nearly everyone has had at least one, if not dozens of, major ah-ha moment.
This is at least a little surprising given the regulated community is subject to a myriad of rules that require risk identification and assessment, accident preparedness and mitigation planning, disaster planning, emergency response planning, civil disturbance planning, on-hand availability of required PPE and response equipment, employee training, business continuity and contingency plans, hazard communication, and more. The primary reason we are better prepared to deal with chemical, meteorological, and job hazard emergencies is that rules require the regulated community to be prepared. With viral pandemics, not so much. However, the same principles that have made us adept in responding to some types of emergencies can be applied to pandemics as well.
In a series of posts over the next several weeks, I will discuss the components of what could be included in a Pandemic Disease Emergency Preparedness and Emergency Response Program – there is no one-size-fits-all approach and some components may not apply to a specific entity or market. Hopefully this information will improve our preparations and response so the next time we face an event like COVID-19, we are prepared in the same ways we are prepared for a major hurricane, chemical release, power outage, or financial disaster. While this series is presented to help prepare for the next pandemic, the information and strategies can also be developed and implemented now and potentially be helpful in the current crisis.
Pandemic emergency preparedness and response planning has three distinct stages:
- Emergency response
- Incident termination and investigation
The preparedness/pre-emergency planning stage has by far the most components and sub-components. It also takes the most time to develop, and for good reason — if you get the preparedness and pre-emergency pieces down, drill for them, train on them, and commit the resources, when the emergency hits you have the playbook and implementation plan.
The first steps
Typically, the first steps in preparing for a potential viral pandemic (or any other emergency) are Risk Identification, Risk Assessment, and Risk Characterization/Classification. These three concepts are then applied beginning at the macro level (within your organization) and then drilling down through the entire enterprise. Risk Identification looks at what are the potential risks to my entity if we faced a pandemic. Risk/Hazard Assessment quantifies and evaluates the probability of the identified risks occurring. Risk Characterization/Classification uses a hierarchy to classify the relative risks and prioritizes the level of pre-planning as an entity and down to individual job tasks and employee roles. Each one of these components are essential building blocks and will be discussed in more detail in the next post in this series.