After the pandemic: What we learned from H1N1

By Neale McDevitt

I t was the Y2K of health crises. Rather than devastating populations and shutting down major metropolitan areas, as some predicted might happen, the H1N1 pandemic turned out to be better fodder for late-night monologues than disaster movies. In the end, it begged the question “what if they held a pandemic and nobody came?”

“It is a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t proposition,” said Jim Nicell, Associate Vice-Principal (University Services), who spearheaded McGill’s H1N1 preparedness strategy. “If an emergency is upon us and we act vigorously to deal with it and it turns out to be a non-event, critics will point their fingers and say we over-reacted.

“But, if we don’t respond and things get out of control, people will say we were irresponsible because we didn’t plan. I’d rather err on the side of being over-prepared. In light of the great unknown we were facing, I’d say we did the right thing.”

The right thing was hammering out a multitude of contingency plans that would address any eventuality, including worst-case scenarios. The Pandemic Contingency Planning Group – which included people from University Safety, the office of Student Life and Learning, Human Resources, Residences, Student Health Services, Information Technology, Public Affairs, and faculty and student representatives – was given the mandate of co-ordinating the development of contingency plans across the University.

Key people in key positions

“One thing became clear right away,” said Nicell. “You have certain people who are absolutely pivotal for the daily operations of the University. In many ways I am far more dispensable than an electrician. If we lose power in a building, I can sit in on as many committee meetings as I want, but I’m not going to get the power back.

“We had to make sure that these types of key people were cross-trained to replace each other so that in the event a significant number of them are out, McGill would still be up and running.”

Communications were also a key element of McGill’s preparation, with the pro-vaccination camp and their anti-vaccination counterparts issuing an endless supply of conflicting information. “I was amazed at the uncertainty,” said Nicell. “I had people asking me whether or not they should get vaccinated. I had to tell them ‘I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV.’

“We supported public health officials who advised getting vaccinated. So it was absolutely critical that we kept delivering that message consistently.”

In the end, Nicell was impressed how, in part, the worldwide education campaign worked. “I was blown away by how people started sneezing into their elbows,” he said. “The culture was changed by constantly reinforcing the message.”

A different kind of emergency

Unlike more “typical” emergency situations in the past – such as the 2007 electrical fire in the Currie gym where specific units were mobilized to deal with the situation over a short, albeit intense, period of time – the H1N1 pandemic required University-wide planning right down to the smallest detail.

McGill’s Residences were of particular concern because they are densely populated buildings in which students share a myriad of common rooms and bathroom and dining facilities – the perfect situation for the H1N1 virus to run rampant. “We had to make sure we could handle the entrance of the virus,” said Nicell. “How do we keep people isolated? How do we provide them with proper care? Who will check to make sure they are OK? Who will cook their meals? Who will deliver those meals? We had to have all the details hammered out right down to the specific responsibilities for each person.”

That attention to detail extended to McGill’s self-reporting system in which students and faculty were asked to fill out online forms to alert the University if they were experiencing symptoms consistent with H1N1. In all, some 2,200 McGillians used the system to report their symptoms, helping Nicell and his group chart the progress of the virus within the University population. And while the system wasn’t taxed, thankfully, it is in place for future such situations. “What took programmers several weeks to develop can now be rolled out in a matter of days,” said Nicell. “And the same is true for much of the contingency planning we did. Situations will change so these plans will have to be updated accordingly, but the real legwork has been done and the tools and templates are there now.”