UT’s Infectious Disease Plan Annex involves coordinated response on campus

Natalie Sullivan

Although Gov. Rick Perry established an infectious disease task force to handle the state’s response to Ebola, the University also has its own Infectious Disease Plan Annex in place to implement precautions and decide what to do in case of a possible Ebola outbreak on campus. 

Coordinating responses from several campus organizations, the plan provides guidelines for the University to reduce the spread of an infectious disease and its social and economic effects on campus. The plan is designed to be easily changed depending on which disease it is in response to and the possible effects that disease could have. According to James Tai, interim co-medical director with University Health Services, University officials met Monday to discuss how the plan would adapt to a possible Ebola outbreak on campus. 

Tai said UHS began implementing precautions when Ebola first started affecting people in West Africa, including conducting screening surveys and changing its internal policies to make staff aware of certain symptoms of the virus. UHS has also developed fact sheets about Ebola, screened students coming from West Africa for possible risk factors and changed its telephone triage policies to ask more questions about recent travel, Tai said. 

“The first thing we would do is put information out about health care, hand washing and general conditions,” Tai said. “If the illness spread in Texas, we would look at how we handle triage and phone calls related to the disease. If it moved to the city, we would look at making sure first responders have appropriate protective equipment, satellite clinics and that kind of stuff.”

Bob Harkins, associate vice president for Campus Safety and Security, said the University has created previous plans for diseases such as SARS, influenza and mumps, and would follow state and federal recommendations in the event of an Ebola outbreak. 

“We’ll meet and look at Ebola, and the main question is: If it comes to Austin, what would we do?” Harkins said. “We’d follow what the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the state lays out as a good Ebola plan and say, ‘How does that fit into our stages?’ There’s no vaccine for it — it’s not like you can get a flu shot — so we could only react to it.”

Harkins said a response to Ebola would depend on where and how students were affected. 

“If a case was reported, say, for students in a class, we’d interview and monitor students in that class,” Harkins said. “If it was in a residence hall, the circumstances would differ — we’d have to disinfect the hall and move students out.”

Tai said UHS’ response to an outbreak of Ebola would depend on the number of people affected by the virus and its severity. 

“It would depend on whether it’s a new infection and if people have immunity to it or not and what the effects of the virus are,” Tai said. “Obviously, if it has a higher mortality rate and affects more people, that’s going to be more alarming.”

The University’s approach to Ebola would be slightly different from previous plans because the virus is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, not through respiratory contact, Tai said. 

“We’d use personal protective equipment, which involves goggles, face shields, gowns and gloves, which are the same precautions they would follow for a virus like this in a hospital,” Tai said.

Harkins said the plan coordinates responses from Environmental Health and Safety, the UT Police Department, University Health Services and the Division of Housing and Food Services, along with other campus organizations. 

“We’re a group of organizations that plans infectious disease response and monitors things — if we need to meet, we’ll meet,” Harkins said. “A lot of what we do is dictated by the feds and state, and then there’s an independent response on campus to figure out, ‘What does Facilities have to do?’ There’s a response with [the Division of Housing and Food Services], with global response and with the state. We try and monitor what’s going on campus and with the System.”

The plan divides responses into five stages numbered zero through four, with each stage implementing increased precautions as the disease spreads and gets geographically closer to campus. Level 0 involves the identification of a new virus that has not been transmitted between humans. Level 1 happens with the first confirmed case of human-to-human transmission of the virus worldwide, Level 2 is when the disease is passed between humans in the U.S., Canada or Mexico, and Level 3 when the disease is passed between humans in Texas. Level 4, the last stage, occurs with the first confirmed case of human-to-human transmission of the virus in Austin, Travis County or Central Texas. 

University spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon said the University would follow state health department guidelines in informing students of an Ebola outbreak on campus. 

“[The state department] would direct the University as to what we should communicate to students,” Weldon said. “They’re going to be very prescriptive in who we communicate with and what we say.”