Multi-agency health “tabletop”

March 29, 2018

A recent tabletop exercise allowed planners at the North Dakota Department of Health and North Dakota University System to look into challenges and solutions to a hypothetical disease outbreak.

According to NDUS Student Affairs Director Katie Fitzsimmons, the exercise allowed representatives from both organizations to put their heads together.

“The N.D. Department of Health discovered that they had a credit with one of their vaccine suppliers and it was expiring soon,” Fitzsimmons said. “They had been looking for another opportunity to partner with the university system, so creating and executing a disease outbreak vaccination exercise seemed like a great fit.”

In addition to both organizations, all local public health units had a place at the exercise. That provided all officials who might find themselves responding to such a real life situation to go over standard operating procedures well before reality struck.

“Should any campus or area experience a disease outbreak, local public health units, along with the North Dakota Department of Health and the CDC, would be at the front of the line, working and providing solutions,” Fitzsimmons said about the exercise, which lasted three hours and included nearly 80 staff members from the involved agencies.

Through the course of the meeting, participants moved steadily through several possible scenarios, and discussed what reactions would be likely at the campus level.

“I sat in with the Bismarck State College staff and throughout the meeting, we discussed protocols that they currently have in place and ones they would like to put into place, to make a reaction smooth and seamless,” Fitzsimmons noted. “Every campus has different variables and considerations to take into account. For example, BSC has the Career Academy on campus and hundreds of local high school students drive and bus onto their campus every day for classes.

“If a BSC student, or students, were to present with a disease symptom that would warrant action, BSC would need to work with BPS, local public health, and the NDDoH to pose an appropriate response and course of action,” she continued. “We discussed different thresholds- such as: would the campus cancel classes? Would administration shut down residence halls? Would a particular vaccination become mandatory? Everything would depend on what exactly occurred, how it was contained, and what information they have. We also discussed how the campus would communicate with the community and to the media, especially in light of private health information rising to the surface.”

With so many considerations to make, it was an important step to getting all organizations on the same page. Fitzsimmons said she felt the tabletop exercise was helpful in getting “the wheels turning and getting all campuses thinking about worst case scenarios and anything that falls below that measure.” She added that although many, if not most, campuses already have pandemic or outbreak protocols in place, the exercise created a better bridge between public health, the health department and the university system, as well as fortifying the shared services and cooperation that we see across the system.