With each passing day, the odds that coronavirus will expand into a worldwide pandemic increase. As of Tuesday, more than 81,000 cases had been confirmed worldwide in 37 countries. A total of 2,800 deaths have been reported. The actual number of cases is likely to be many times the number of confirmed cases.
Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) is considering a declaration of a worldwide pandemic, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already is warning about a pandemic in the United States. The Trump administration has requested $2.5 billion to fight coronavirus, per media reports. Yet, even with the best efforts, development of an effective vaccine is 12 to 18 months away, according to NIH estimates.
None of this information should cause any of us to panic now. However, it is exceptionally important that we begin to plan and prepare as if a pandemic will occur in the U.S.
We already know that coronavirus is transmitted from person to person, very much like a more traditional flu or common cold. Thus, population-wide efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus must reduce the transmission capacity of the virus through:
- Control of large gatherings
- Control of transportation flows including transportation in small spaces such as planes and subways
- Widespread use of protective masks, clothing, and gloves, and related measures.
China has imposed severe travel restrictions in Wuhan, and several countries already are restricting flights to affected areas.
A very important question to ask today is the status and capacity of our national, state, county and city disaster response plans to address a pandemic of this type. If such plans are deemed inadequate, we need to begin immediately rectifying their deficiencies and building our capacities to respond and improve our plan of action.
What about the functioning of our behavioral health and I/DD systems during a coronavirus pandemic? Here are several potential consequences that will ensue from public health measures likely to be instituted if a coronavirus pandemic actually occurs:
Restrictions on travel for employees. Travel restrictions are quite likely in your community during a pandemic. Thus, you will need to consider how your organization could function if your clinicians and other employees are prevented from coming to the clinic or hospital. How much of your operation could be conducted via telecommuting? What functions could not be done that way, what are the consequences, and what are some alternate solutions? How will you address potential fear and panic among your employees?
Restrictions on travel for consumers. Similar travel restrictions are equally likely for your consumers. What care can you provide via social media, the telephone, etc.? What interventions can be done at a distance if a consumer goes into crisis? How will consumers replenish supplies of medications they need every day? How will consumer chat and friendship groups be maintained? How will you address potential fear and panic among your consumers?
Acquiring needed supplies. What pandemic-related supplies will be needed that you currently do not maintain? For example, do you have protective face masks, clothing, and gloves for your staff? For your consumers? You will need to consider this question not only for the short term but also for a longer term, such as six months to a year. Can you supply communication and IT tools for your staff to work from home? Similarly, what communication tools will be needed by the consumers you serve?
Economic impact. Clearly, the incapacity of organizations to function fully will have economic impacts upon them. How many days or months could your organization continue operations with reduced or no income? Can you do your billings virtually from the home of one of your employees? Can you pay your employees virtually? What about the simple task of doing your organizational banking virtually versus in person? Do you have relationships with other organizations to share staff, resources, expertise, etc., if needed?
This short list just begins to scratch the surface of the questions you will need to ask as you begin to prepare for a coronavirus pandemic. I am sure that you will generate many more questions to be addressed as you begin to reflect on this issue. That is a good thing, because it will help you become prepared.
I hope that in six months or a year, the threat of a coronavirus pandemic just will be a memory from the past. However, if not, it is much better to be prepared than sorry.