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H1N1 clinic taking its last jabs on campus, but emergency work must continue

Dec. 4, 2009

As the H1N1 immunization clinic on the St. John’s campus heads into its last day, organizers are calling the endeavour an overall success.

By the time the clinic closes its doors at 6 p.m. Friday, partnerships between the university and provincial health players will be stronger, the university will have had practice applying the pillars of emergency management, and more than 5,000 members of the community will have received a flu-preventing jab.

“It was good to be able to offer this service to our community. The clinic operated smoothly, and we believe it will lessen the possibility of illness as students head into exams,” said David Head, director of Enterprise Risk Management at Memorial.

The clinic, an initiative of Eastern Health, offered immunization to all members of the Memorial, Marine Institute and College of the North Atlantic (CNA) communities, and to their families.

“We were delighted to partner with Memorial to offer this clinic, and particularly to offer it to students who might not have access to transportation to get to another clinic, and who are juggling busy schedules. Being able to bring a clinic to them was great,” said Ann Manning, the director for community health and nursing services at Eastern Health.

Despite complications with the availability of vaccine, she said the clinic was set up very quickly once vaccine became available. In fact, Memorial was contacted with the go-ahead on Nov. 23 by Eastern Health, and the clinic opened the next day.  Its success, Ms. Manning believes, depended on the collaborative efforts of nurses from the School of Nursing, the VON and CNA working alongside Eastern Health staff.

Darlene Billard-Croucher, VON branch director, was also pleased with the outcome.

“The clinic was very well-organized by Memorial, and the facility was perfect.”

While the VON already has an excellent working relationship with MUN through its work on seasonal flu clinics on campus (scheduled this year for Dec. 16-17), she believes this intense collaboration enhanced the relationship, and is already thinking about possibilities for expanding the relationship.

The impact of flu on the Memorial community climbed throughout October and peaked  the first week of November. That week, 6.6 per cent of students were self-reporting flu-like symptoms, 1.8 per cent of classes were cancelled and 13 per cent of staff were absent from work, more than double the absentee rate for the same week in 2008. Absenteeism and class cancellations have returned to more normal levels.

According to Mr. Head, the entire H1N1 experience allowed Memorial to exercise its emergency planning and response muscles.

“As we went through the process of planning for and responding to H1N1, it was like running a simultaneous tabletop exercise. We assessed our planning process, applied the theory and learned from it.”

Memorial’s emergency co-ordinator, Karen Alexander, agreed. “This was an opportunity to work through the four pillars of emergency planning [preparedness, prevention/mitigation, response and recovery].”

She believes the university’s ability to manage the impact of H1N1 was enabled by the commitment of senior leadership to the emergency planning process, and the buy in, teamwork and flexibility at all levels. An early start was also crucial.

The university began preparing for pandemic last May, when news of H1N1 began to surface.

“We had sound core planning assumptions, provided by public health officials,” explained Ms. Alexander. “We knew to expect levels of absenteeism up to 35 per cent, and to expect illness in the residences, and we planned for worst case scenarios.”

With unit plans finalized by early September, the team began to focus on educating the community about prevention and mitigation, lessening the possibility that those worst-case scenarios would materialize.

While the Memorial clinic is closing its doors, Ms. Manning said that Eastern Health’s other mass immunization clinics will continue in the coming weeks. “We want people to be as protected as possible. We want to be prepared for another wave that may come.”

Just as that work will continue, Ms. Alexander says Memorial will continue to focus on its emergency planning. “This was a warm-up exercise for the next piece of work, creating an all-hazards plan. I want to keep the momentum going on campus.”