From Panic to Pandemic: Laboratory Emergency Response Plans

In 2018, Hurricane Florence ripped through the Carolinas causing an immense amount of destruction and taking a record amount of lives in the area. Superstorm Sandy had a devastating impact on New York and New Jersey in October 2012. In Joplin, Missouri, an EF-5 tornado cut a damaging path through town in May 2011, directly hitting the hospital. Severe storms, flooding, and even blizzards are regular events throughout large areas of the United States every year, disrupting normal life and the delivery of services, including healthcare services.

Natural disasters occur frequently, and labs must consider them in their Emergency Response plans. These disasters have consequences for hospitals and laboratories and their operations. Given the wide variety of possible disasters that can affect a laboratory, it may seem impossible to be prepared for every type of event that could occur. Some labs take a reactive approach and create individual plans for different disaster types. For example, a lab manager may decide to create a blizzard response plan after a major winter storm—a plan that is separate from any previously existing lab emergency response plan. That may not work well, and it many plans may become cumbersome for lab staff when the event occurs.

As 2020 has shown us, other types of disasters that are not normally considered can also affect laboratory operations. The COVID-19 pandemic situation has created issues like the reduction of the availability of staff, a need to quickly alter testing platforms, and even major supply acquisition issues. Clearly, pandemic issues need to be considered when looking at lab disaster responses.

The best type of laboratory emergency response plan is a single plan that will enable the laboratory to continue to provide services in a variety of disaster scenarios, including pandemics. The College of American Pathologists (CAP) requires labs to develop an emergency plan which is based on the overall facility’s Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA). The HVA is a risk assessment tool that lists types of disasters that can affect the facility, and it ranks which disaster types are most likely. If you work in an independent lab, you must perform your own HVA and update it every year. In 2020, it would be prudent to quickly add “pandemic” to the list.

There is no need to panic, however. In your plan which has been designed to have an “all hazards” approach, you may find some aspects of pandemic response are already addressed. Fluctuating staffing levels should already be addressed. Be sure the plan discusses how to best utilize staff when fewer people are available. That process may include a reduction in testing or utilizing a reference lab if necessary. In some instances during the pandemic, labs were left with too many staff members once an overall reduction in lab volumes occurred. How can extra staff be used? Can they go to other departments or facilities where needs may exist? There should be a section in the response plan regarding how to handle supply issues. If it is known there is going to be a problem obtaining PPE, reagents, and other supplies, decide what procedures will occur. Stockpiling, finding alternative vendors, and changing the type of supplies purchased are some options.

Once all of the pieces of the updated lab emergency operations procedure is complete, it is important to test the plan for flaws or needed improvements. One thorough method of testing includes the use of a table-top drill or exercise. Present a step-wise disaster scenario to key lab stakeholders and discuss possible responses as the imagined situation unfolds. Be sure to discuss important aspects such as staffing, supplies, communications, and relocation of testing. If the COVID-19 pandemic has led your lab to utilize its emergency response plan, be sure to take the opportunity to review how it is working for your department. Ask lab leaders and staff members if the current plan works- what went well and what needs improvement? This current disaster can help us all to improve our current procedures and keep us ready for the next event.

Is your laboratory emergency operations plan up to date? Does your staff know how to use it or will they panic when a disaster occurs? Has the plan been tested? Now is the time to review what you have and make sure it works for pandemics as well as a wide variety of disaster scenarios.

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

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