USNORTHCOM hosts work group for pandemic influenza planning

By Chief Petty Officer Susan Hammond | U.S. Northern Command Public Affairs | August 25, 2006

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – As more and more birds carry avian influenza to new areas of the globe, planning for a potential global pandemic continues to build at hundreds of federal, state and local agencies. Pressure is increasing for these agencies to develop comprehensive operations should pandemic flu strike.

How does a multitude of government entities coordinate without wasting or duplicating effort?

At U.S. Northern Command, one method is to host a focused work group with top-level planners. Representatives from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Public Health and Emergency Preparedness of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services participated in a Joint Interagency Group Coordination meeting Aug. 23 to help integrate USNORTHCOM’s mission into the federal pandemic influenza response plan.

“We’ve got the right people to roll up their sleeves and advance our collective efforts toward national preparedness,” said James Castle, deputy director of USNORTHCOM’s Interagency Coordination directorate.

“It’s not just the military’s involvement in this,” Castle said. “We partner closely with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Infectious Diseases, a subsidiary of the CDC, and a host of others to put together a national plan that supports the whole country.”

The creation of a national response plan for pandemic influenza has been prompted by the spread of the H5N1 influenza virus (avian flu) among birds across Asia and Africa and the historical lessons of the flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed 20 million people worldwide. Although avian flu is currently a bird disease that is not easily passed to humans, medical experts fear that if the virus were to mutate and become easily transferable among humans, it could trigger a global flu pandemic, potentially placing the lives of millions of people at risk and affecting all areas of society.

While USNORTHCOM’s mission is to deter, prevent, and defeat aggression against the United States, its territories and interests, the command is also directed, upon request by the president or secretary of defense, to provide defense support assistance to civil authorities, which places it in the thick of preparedness planning for a pandemic flu.

So how likely is it that all this planning will be needed?

“I don’t think anyone really knows when it’s going to happen or even what’s going to happen,” said Capt. Stephen C. Redd, a Navy doctor with the CDC’s Center for Infectious Diseases and a leader in the CDC’s efforts to prepare for pandemic flu.

“We’re all tracking the situation and trying to be aware as quickly as possible if something does happen," Redd said. "The real reason is to be able to provide that information and to make the right decisions so that the average person will know what the situation is and what to do.” Redd traveled from the CDC in Atlanta to participate in USNORTHCOM's interagency work group.

Redd said that according to the CDC’s disease intelligence, human-to-human transmission has been likely in only a handful of cases, and such transmission has not been sustained. Nevertheless, H5N1 is currently the lead candidate for triggering a pandemic.

In the event of a pandemic, triggered first by sustained human-to-human transmission of influenza, the CDC’s role would be to get information to decision makers as soon as possible. According to the National Response Plan, one of the critical decisions to be made will be to activate operational stages of the Emergency Support Function 8 that will trigger public health and medical services, including diagnosis, treatment, quarantine and transport of patients in the event of a significant natural or man-made disaster. Intense planning is still in process. ESF 8 currently supports surveillance, antiviral and vaccine development and assists state, local and tribal partners in response planning.

“We’ve made progress, but there are a lot of the gaps that we need to fill in, and we’re not going to be able to fill those without cooperation from NORTHCOM,” said Casey Emmer of DHHS’s Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness and ESF 8’s lead planner for pandemic influenza. “Meetings like [USNORTHCOM's work group] continue to build relationships across the departments and across the offices.

“Flu is a really excellent opportunity to plan for a whole span of missions that we haven’t really planned for yet,” she said. “The opportunity translates to many other public health and medical emergencies.”

Strength is in the teamwork, Castle said.

“It’s forums like this that get people talking to each other directly and asking questions that help each organization to make sure that they’re synchronized and integrated with the others,” Castle said.