Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 29, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — Chicago is better prepared for a flu pandemic than most large cities, thanks to some forethought by health professionals and disaster planning specialists at Northern Illinois University.
“Chicago is in far better shape to respond to such an outbreak today than it was just a few years ago,” says Dennis Cesarotti, a professor of technology who teaches classes in disaster preparedness in NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.
Cesarotti was part of a team that worked with the Chicago Department of Public Health to draft a plan to ensure that essential health services will not be interrupted by a pandemic. That planning was instituted out of concern about a potential avian flu pandemic, a far deadlier flu strain than the one circulating at the moment. Contemplating that disease forced the team to envision a nightmare scenario of tens of thousands of deaths in a matter of weeks, massive quarantines and threats to basic public services such as transportation, power and health care as essential employees fell ill or died.
The current strain of flu is not quite as frightening, but the plan created to deal with such situations could still be useful.
“In a pandemic you need to have a plan in place that can be implemented at once. You don’t have the luxury of time to think about what needs to be done. You have to know in advance and be ready to react. The work accomplished by the Chicago Department of Public Health over the last couple years gives the city a big head start,” says Cesarotti.
Rather than contemplating all of the frightening aspects of a pandemic, Cesarotti and his counterparts, Kevin Croke and Charles John of the University of Illinois at Chicago, focused on the nuts and bolts of keeping the health care infrastructure operating in the midst of a large scale health emergency.
“When you get right down to it, creating this plan is nothing more than a huge logistical puzzle. The difference is, instead of figuring out how to make widgets more efficiently we are trying to figure out how to most effectively deploy doctors, nurses, vaccine, etc. It’s really a fascinating project,” says Cesarotti, who previously owned a consulting firm that helped businesses, municipalities and other organizations respond to disasters ranging from floods to anthrax scares. He also has helped establish programs at NIU that prepare students for careers related to homeland security.
The first step in the pandemic planning process was to meet with the Chicago Department of Public Health and the mayor’s office to identify which of the department’s many services would be top priorities and identify the skills needed to perform those tasks. From there began the cold calculus of discussing how to keep those services operational as more and more employees became ill, died or had to stay home to care for loved ones.
With that information in hand, Cesarotti and his UIC counterparts created matrixes, trying to plug the right people into the right roles to keep essential services operating in the face of a shrinking workforce. They also devised ways to streamline supply chains and create other efficiencies that would allow the department to do more with less.
Chances are, says Cesarotti, this current outbreak will not be so severe as to require implementation of the full plan. The plan, however, is designed to be implemented in stages and useful in the event of a pandemic of any magnitude.
“Just the fact that people have thought about it and talked about it is helpful,” says Cesarotti. “Through all of that discussion a lot of issues came to light, allowing the city to correct problems or plan around them. Ultimately, because of this plan, Chicago will be able to react much faster.”
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