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December 19
Evidence-Based Planning Guidance for Patient Decontamination

Author: Susan M. Cibulsky, PhD, Medical Countermeasure Strategy and Requirements Division, ASPR Office of Policy and Planning

Responding effectively to a catastrophic incident involving the release of hazardous chemicals could be a daunting challenge. In the United States approximately 25 million people live near chemical facilities. In a catastrophic incident, up to 10,000 of those living nearest to those facilities could be at risk of chemical exposure. The potential for chemical terrorism or warfare, like the sarin gas attack in Syria in 2013, poses similar challenges.

To protect health and save lives in such catastrophic incidents, first responders, medical providers, and public health officials will want to make decisions about how to decontaminate patients based on scientific evidence. Now the nation’s first evidence-based guidance  is available to help our communities plan to do just that. The new guidance is flexible and scalable so it can be applied to various types and sizes of incidents, including those that affect a small number of people.

That’s important because while most people only think about chemical spills or attacks when the catastrophes hit the news, large quantities of hazardous chemicals are made, transported, stored, and used in homes, offices or industrial settings every day in the United States. Even taking every safety precaution, there still is a risk that the chemicals could be released into the environment either by accident or intentionally to cause harm. In fact, an estimated 15,000 chemical incidents occurred in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry.

Many toxic chemicals are readily absorbed into the body and cause injury and illness quickly. Decontaminating patients can prevent or limit absorption of the chemical and minimize adverse health effects. Decontamination also can prevent the spread of contamination to other people (including responders and receivers) and to health care equipment and facilities. In fact, since it can protect health, patient decontamination is considered a medical countermeasure.

ASPR and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs led the effort to develop this first-ever evidence-based guidance. Joining us were experts in emergency response, emergency medicine, toxicology, risk communication, behavioral health, and other relevant fields from academic and non-government organizations and federal, state, and local agencies.

The guidance covers mass casualties, chemical release, external contamination, and decontamination of people (not animals, not inanimate objects, not facilities). To shape and substantiate the recommendations, this working group of experts sought out and used all of the evidence available. The new guidance also incorporates public comments received last spring.

In crafting the guidance, the team recognized that the primary goal of patient decontamination should be improved health outcomes. The team also acknowledged that as a medical countermeasure, patient decontamination needs to be coordinated with other medical aspects of the emergency response and that patient decontamination is a whole community issue.

The final guidance encourages communities to have a risk and crisis communication strategy in place pre-incident to reach all community members. System-wide coordination and responder communication is essential, too, especially between on-scene responders and hospital-based receivers. So the working group recommended a tiered, risk-based approach which matches the nature and extent of decontamination to the characteristics of the incident.

To be sure the guidance is easy to use recommendations are organized by functional components of a response. In the extensive process to develop this guidance, the team found that more research is needed to answer many of the essential questions. So the guidance will be updated periodically as new evidence becomes available.

Responders and public health officials: if you’ve experienced a chemical spill in your community, you can share your experience and your thoughts on the new guidance by commenting on this blog. 

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December 15
Flu Vaccination:  Keeping your child healthier in disasters and every day

Authors: Sulava Gautam, MPP, Program Analyst, GAPSI Contractor in support of the Division for At Risk Individuals, Behavioral Health, and Community Resilience, HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and LT Tala Hooban, MPH, CHES, CPH, Preparedness & Community Resilience Team Lead, Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response, HHS Administration for Children and Families

The holiday season is usually one of the busiest and most chaotic times of the year and it can be easy to neglect one of the most important items on your to do list – getting a flu vaccination. In particular, parents and guardians of young children need to make time to get the whole family vaccinated. While the importance of getting the flu shot is confirmed by public health and medical professionals, many parents and guardians still ask, “Does it really make a difference for my child?”

The answer is yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends an annual flu vaccine for every person six months and older as the first and best way to protect against the flu. Children younger than five, and especially those younger than two, are at high risk for severe flu complications. Children with chronic medical conditions including asthma and seizures are at even higher risk. On average, 20,000 children under the age of 5 in the U.S. are hospitalized annually with flu-related complications. An annual flu vaccination is one of the quickest, easiest, and best ways to help protect your child.

Children are at risk for contracting the flu throughout the season. If your child is being cared for by a child care provider, in a preschool, or at a Head Start center, then you know that your child is spending time with lots of other children and adults who can carry the virus. Even if your child stays home, he or she probably frequents playgrounds, play groups and other places where children and adults gather. Getting a flu vaccination protects your child and keeps him or her from spreading the virus to others.

Vaccination can also help keep your child healthy if a disaster strikes. Disasters don’t usually give much warning and it takes a couple of weeks for your vaccination to protect you from the virus. Flu vaccinations should be integrated into preparedness plan alongside actions such as making a preparedness kit and creating a family reunification plan. During or after a disaster, the last thing you want to worry about is whether or not your child could become sick with the flu – or how to keep your child safe if he or she already has it when disaster strikes.

Getting your child vaccinated is easy and it can even be painless. Your child can get vaccinated by their healthcare provider or you can find a place to have your child vaccinated with the Flu Vaccine Finder. And remember that a flu vaccine doesn’t have to mean a flu shot. Recent studies indicate that the nasal spray flu vaccine may work better than the flu shot in children age 2 through 8. However, the nasal spray is not for children under 2 years old. If your child is under 6 months old, your child can’t get the flu vaccine, so it is especially important to make sure that everyone else in the house has gotten vaccinated. To learn more about your options, check out Flu.gov or talk to your pediatrician.

Even with a flu vaccine, your child could get the flu. However, the flu vaccine can help reduce the severity of the flu in case your child does become ill. If your child has the flu, symptoms may include a fever, headache, coughs, chills, sore throat, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose, vomiting and diarrhea, or body aches. If you suspect your child has the flu, see your pediatrician.

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) and the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) encourage you to take steps to protect your children from the flu so that you can keep them safe and healthy in disasters and every day.

November 25
Protecting antibiotics by strengthening the antibiotic pipeline

Author: Dr. Melissa Stundick, Acting Branch Chief Broad Spectrum Antimicrobials Program, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Every day, we rely on antibiotics to stay healthy – and having effective antibiotics is even more critical to help treat bacterial disease during a disaster or infectious disease outbreak caused by bacteria. Though we know that disasters will strike again and disease outbreaks will continue to happen, we can’t be sure that the antibiotics that we rely on will continue to be effective in fighting bacterial infections.

The antibiotic pipeline responsible for developing new antibiotics has been crumbling over the last 30 years. Antibiotics are costly to develop so many companies have shifted their focus to medicines to treat chronic diseases, since these medicines bring larger and more reliable returns on their investments than antibiotics.

To reverse the decline of the antibiotic pipeline, we need a strategy for creating a market, promoting public-private partnerships, and providing funding. The White House has recently put a series of plans and strategies in place to support those objectives.

On September 18, 2014, President Obama signed an Executive Order on Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria. The Executive Order expanded BARDA’s authority to develop new and next generation countermeasures that target antibiotic-resistant bacteria that present a serious threat to public health. This allows BARDA to use its resources more efficiently and increases the breadth of technological solutions we can bring to bear.

As one example of how these new authorities can be used, BARDA can now support narrow spectrum or pathogen-specific products such as monoclonal antibodies against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This infection strikes patients in hospitals, especially those on breathing machines, using devices such as catheters, with wounds from surgery, or with wounds from burns. In the wake of a major disease outbreak, hospitals rely on these devices for patient care, thus increasing risk of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. In a disaster that involves an increased number of injuries and burn victims, you would also expect to see increased instances of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. By finding a way to combat this disease, BARDA is supporting an all-hazards medical response.

The National Strategy for Combatting Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria was created, in part, help find a solution that creates the required business case for additional antibiotic development. The national strategy called for the expansion of opportunities for public-private partnerships like those already active within the Broad Spectrum Antimicrobials (BSA) Program as well as the establishment of a biopharm incubator to accelerate research on new antibiotics and other tools to combat resistant bacteria. Public-private partnerships are the foundation of the BSA program and have been used successfully to date to engage companies developing novel antibacterial therapeutics.

In their Report the President on Combatting Antibiotic Resistance, the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended that BARDA receive $400 million in advanced research development funding annually. In addition, the report recommended that an Antibiotic Incentive Fund be established at a funding level of $4 billion over ten years. The fund would be used to incentivize companies developing antibiotics thru milestone payments; advance market commitments; and reimburse late stage development or post marketing commitments. Legislative action will be needed to enact any of these recommendations.

Reversing the decline in antibacterial drug development will require a response similar to the one BARDA and the rest of the U.S. government used to overcome market failures in combating influenza and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats to our nation’s health security. Dedicated funding for antibiotic development, flexible appropriations, the continued ability to enter into innovative partnerships, and a clear mandate will better enable BARDA to help our nation combat these threats. 

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November 17
Developing an Ebola Therapeutic

Author: Robin Robinson, Ph.D, Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness & Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Leveraging experience and investments to help respond to the Ebola outbreak

BARDA is moving forward in innovative ways to close the gap in vaccines and therapeutics needed to protect the public’s health from Ebola. One promising therapeutic candidate is ZMapp, a unique monoclonal antibody therapeutic that consists of three antibodies targeting the Ebola virus. These antibodies, which are produced in genetically modified tobacco plants, are combined together in a “cocktail” that has shown great promise in animal studies. So far it has been used to treat five patients, four of whom have survived. This is great news, of course, but it is too early to make any claims about the product’s efficacy based on this limited data.

On September 2, 2014, BARDA awarded a contract to Mapp Biopharmaceutical to accelerate the development and testing of ZMapp. BARDA is providing funding as well as technical assistance to scale up manufacturing of ZMapp. We hope to have enough drug by January 2015 to begin clinical studies with ZMapp and increasing quantities will be available over time for additional clinical studies as we improve our capability to manufacture it.

BARDA routinely provides assistance to vaccine and therapeutic manufacturers to help them increase the production capacity of their products to commercial scale. BARDA is currently supporting the manufacture of sufficient doses of ZMapp for initial clinical safety and efficacy studies and it is working with other domestic manufacturers who can produce monoclonal antibodies in tobacco plants in order to maximize the production of ZMapp.

In addition to providing direct support to Mapp Biopharmaceutical, BARDA is utilizing its Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing (CIADMs) to produce monoclonal antibodies like those found in ZMapp to fight Ebola. The CIADMs were established in 2012 to develop and manufacture medical countermeasures during a public health emergency. In parallel, we are working with other manufacturers to develop and manufacture other Ebola monoclonal antibodies using specialized mammalian cells and state-of-the art antibody development and manufacturing technologies.

Once a therapeutic drug or, in this case, monoclonal antibody cocktail has been produced, it will still need to be packaged and vialed for use in clinical settings. As part of our pandemic preparedness efforts, BARDA established a Fill Finish Manufacturing Network to fill vials and finish packaging after the product has been produced. This network, which celebrated its first anniversary last month, will be used to formulate and fill Ebola antibody and vaccine products into vials for studies and other uses.

We have these capabilities today because of the effective plans and investments that we put in place starting in 2010. Because of these investments, we may be able to produce a lifesaving medical countermeasure against Ebola more quickly today. The Ebola crisis is validating these investments in real time.

These national assets will serve us well and highlight how important such investments are. They stand among ongoing preparedness efforts that better position us nationally to deal with Ebola and other public health threats.

Leveraging the assets, partnerships, and processes we’ve established over the past decade, we will fight this epidemic more effectively, expand the options for preventing and treating Ebola, and ultimately defeat this threat to our national and global health security. 




November 07
Connecting the Dots between Individuals, Community Organizations and Community Health Resilience

Authors: Pamela Barnes, MA, Team Lead, National Strategic Engagement, Division of Policy and Strategic Planning, ASPR and Julia Gin, BS, CHES, Jr. Management Analyst, GAPSI Contractor in support of National Strategic Engagement, Division of Policy and Strategic Planning, ASPR

It is hard to predict when a disaster will strike, how severe it will be, or exactly how it will impact a community’s health. But here’s something that we do know: Communities that are connected before a disaster strikes are more capable of safely dealing with that disaster; more flexible in their response to the diverse challenges it brings; and ultimately, better able to protect the health and safety of their members.

So, what does a connected community look like?

A connected community has diverse partnerships, high levels of trust and the ability to work together. All three of those things take time to develop, but once they are established, they can make the community better able to mobilize their networks and respond to or recover from a disaster. Ultimately, they can work together to reduce the impacts of the disaster and help protect people’s health and safety.

Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science Purdue University, argues that social capital Exit Icon—formal and informal bonds that tie individuals together—can foster more effective long-term recovery. He has studied disasters and found that social capital and the trust, or lack thereof, between individuals and organizations in disaster-affected communities can help us understand why some communities are able to bounce back from an emergency event while others struggle with recovery.

Community connectedness can happen at many levels. Individuals can engage with their local civic organizations or just get to know their neighbors. Community organizations can work with each other and with state or local governments to plan on ways that they can help one another every day – and especially when disaster strikes.

Building these connections can be a challenge for many communities, but the benefits of creating a more connected community can include everything from healthier individuals and families, lives saved and communities that are more resilient in the face of a disaster. Ultimately, more connected communities contribute to our national health security.

This Veteran’s Day, as we honor service to our nation, we encourage you to think about ways that you can increase social connectedness as a way to serve your community. In particular, try to think about how community leaders and diverse stakeholders can join traditional disaster planning partners to work together to make their communities more prepared and resilient. Get involved and share your ideas on our IdeaScale collaboration community, Increasing Social Connectedness to Improve Community Resilience Exit Icon.

October 07
The Evolution of a Search: The Use of Dynamic Twitter Searches during Superstorm Sandy

Author: Sidra Kalsoom, Graduate Intern, ASPR Fusion

Who would have thought that tweets could be useful during a disaster such as Superstorm Sandy? Sandy made landfall along the coast of Brigantine, New Jersey as a post-tropical cyclone on October 29, 2012 resulting in catastrophic storm surge along the New Jersey and New York coastlines. It affected a total of 24 states all the way from Florida to Maine with the greatest impact falling on New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

As the storm passed, Twitter was flooded with information, as users sent more than 20 million tweets using the terms Sandy, hurricane, #sandy, and #hurricane. Immediately after the post-landfall hours, 20% of all searches conducted on Twitter were Sandy-related. Both responders and survivors turned to Twitter in an effort to publicly share information within communities, conduct rumor control, share resources, and obtain updates in real time.

An unmatched level of on-the-ground, real-time situational awareness was gathered by using Twitter data due to its free and public availability. Advance notice of Superstorm Sandy allowed ASPR analysts crucial time to better prepare for implementing a Twitter monitoring strategy. As it became clear that Sandy would be making landfall somewhere along the eastern seaboard of the US, ASPR analysts began implementing a two-prong monitoring strategy. The strategy included both Twitter lists and Boolean searches to identify potential public health issues as quickly as possible.

5 important lessons learned from monitoring Twitter during Superstorm Sandy:

  1. Dynamic and flexible monitoring processes and strategies are a must in order to understand and quickly respond to emerging health needs in the impacted areas.
  2. Search strategies should be changed and updated as frequently as the unfolding event.
  3. Twitter lists and Boolean searches should be used together to maximize situational awareness.
  4. The most important information comes from the impacted population, whether news, local government, or local citizens.
  5. It is critical to have a verification system in place before you begin monitoring to avoid perpetuating the spread of rumors and inaccurate information.

Maintaining situational awareness during a disaster is challenging and complex, but a balanced approach to dynamic Twitter searches can help give you a clearer, more complete understanding of the way that a disaster unfolds. Interested in learning more? Check out the Evolution of a Search: The Use of Dynamic Twitter Searches During Superstorm Sandy.

September 30
Building and Sustaining Healthy, Resilient Communities

When a disaster strikes, some communities come together and help their members find ways to stay safe and healthy in the face of a wide range of threats to physical and mental health. Some do not. A community’s ability to withstand, adapt to, and recover from the health impacts of a disaster is known as community health resilience. Community health resilience  includes the community’s ability to prepare the health systems that the community relies on every day, such as the public health and healthcare systems, so that they are ready to protect health and save lives during and after a disaster.

Your community can take actions to increase preparedness while promoting robust day-to-day systems. Some ways that communities can build resilience include:

  • Building social connectedness so that communities are better equipped to understand their needs and help each other during and after an emergency;
  • Becoming prepared and willing to help during an emergency by getting trained in CPR and first aid before a disaster strikes;
  • Using health education to promote health and wellness as well as disaster preparedness;
  • Expanding communication and collaboration with community-based organizations; businesses; academia; state and local governments; and public health, healthcare, and emergency management partners;
  • Encouraging youth to help their communities  by joining civic organizations or volunteerism;
  • Building strong partnerships among people and organizations that can be leveraged to improve response and sustain recovery;
  • Engaging at-risk individuals and the programs that serve them to develop robust disaster and continuity of operations plans; and
  • Strengthening and promoting access to public health, healthcare systems, and social services.

Early next year, HHS plans to publish the National Health Security Strategy (2015-2018), which will emphasize community health resilience as a focus area critical to achieving national health security. By helping your community to increase its level of resilience, you can help our nation become more secure as a whole.

Increasing community health resilience requires the whole community to work together and leverage its diverse assets, such as infrastructure, talents, skills, relationships, technology, and national resources.

Do you have ideas on ways that communities can work together to increase their connectedness so that local health agencies and community-based organizations (such as civic or voluntary services) can promote connectedness before, during and after a disaster? Share your ideas on ASPR’s IdeaScale campaign, Increasing Social Connectedness to Improve Community Resilience.

September 24
Is your Community Ready to Cope with a Disaster?

Authors:  Rachel E. Kaul, LCSW, CTS, Senior Public Health Analyst, ASPR Division for At-Risk, Behavioral Health & Community Resilience and Shulamit M. Schweitzer, MHS, Senior Management Analyst, ASPR Division for At-Risk, Behavioral Health & Community Resilience

Disasters wreak havoc with more than just power lines, roads and homes. People also feel the stress brought by a disaster, and that emotional impact can increase the need for services to help with mental health, substance abuse and stress management. Planning for these needs and recognizing gaps in existing plans and resources before a disaster strikes can help individuals and communities become more resilient and recover more effectively.

Behavioral health services often are provided by multiple agencies. During an emergency, the task of understanding what resources are available and how to provide services to the range of people who need disaster specific behavioral health services or continued mental health services can be daunting. By planning before a disaster strikes, emergency planners at all levels can better understand how they can use resources effectively when every second counts.

The Disaster Behavioral Health Capacity Assessment Tool was designed to help states and localities assess their current capacity to address the disaster behavioral health needs of survivors, responders, those with chronic mental illness, and other at-risk individuals. A capacity assessment conducted at the regional, state, county, city, or agency level, can identify the strengths and gaps of a system, the surge capacity within specific systems, and help target improvement and resource allocation efforts.

The idea for the Tool grew out of a guidance developed by ASPR; the Template for Conducting a State Capacity Assessment or Gap Analysis of Disaster Behavioral Health. The template was produced as a result of a 2009 workshop where representatives from each state in Region I (New England) met with federal representatives to discuss disaster behavioral health capacity in that region. The workshop aimed to improve the integration of behavioral health into public health emergency and disaster preparedness and response. Using the template as a starting point, the new Disaster Behavioral Health Capacity Assessment Tool was enhanced to incorporate stakeholder input and feedback formatted as a checklist with a specific section for provider agencies.

During September, as part of National Preparedness Month activities, we encourage regional, state, county, city, and agency planners to start using the Disaster Behavioral Health Capacity Assessment Tool. The relationships that you build between behavioral health, public health, and emergency management as part of your planning efforts will foster greater integration; promote a more effective response; and can enhance resilience within a region, state, or community.

September 18
You can help combat the threat of antibiotic resistance

Author: Nicole Lurie, M.D., M.S.P.H., Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response

The threat of antibiotic resistance has the potential to significantly impact public health, and your personal health, so fighting antibiotic resistance is a public health and national security priority. Our nation needs new drugs to combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections. At the same time, we need to use current (and future) antibiotics wisely to prevent or minimize resistance.

Over the summer, as part of the blog series called Combatting Antibiotic Resistance, we talked about ASPR’s strategies and programs to develop new drugs that combat antibiotic-resistant infections. In just four years, we've partnered with six companies to develop eight new products to combat antibiotic resistant infections.

Today the President introduced a national strategy on combatting antibiotic-resistant bacteria and issued an executive order to federal departments to implement the National Strategy and respond to a report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report.

With these tools in hand, BARDA will be stepping up to add new drugs and medical products to your doctor’s toolkit. BARDA and the National Institutes of Health will co-sponsor a $20 million prize to facilitate the development of rapid, point-of-care diagnostic tests for healthcare providers to use to identify highly resistant bacterial infections. In the near future, HHS agencies will host a public meeting that will engage stakeholders to ensure that this competition focuses on the type of diagnostic most needed by the medical and public health communities for recognizing and treating antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

YouTube video plaver with image of medicine pill.

As we discussed in this summer’s blog series, using public-private partnerships is effective in developing new drugs and medical products, so we’ll continue to bring together the best experts, biotech and pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs and products to counter this threat. Success, however, depends on individuals, organizations and industry working together.

Individuals:

Each of us plays a critical role in helping combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections. Antibiotics aren’t always the answer. We need to be smart about when to use antibiotics and when not to. The FDA and CDC have great tips on using antibiotics.

FDA: Combating Antibiotic Resistance
CDC: Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work

Organizations:

BARDA regularly engages strategic advisory boards and organizations working in the area of antibiotic resistance. These entities play a critical role in the publication of documents and strategies that help inform actions taken by the government to mitigate the threat of antibiotic resistance.

BARDA staff members attend industry conferences on drug development, public meetings and are members of the Interagency Task Force on Antimicrobial Resistance and the Transatlantic Taskforce on Antimicrobial Resistance (TATFAR). As mandated by Congress, every year BARDA engages with our industry and academic partners at BARDA Industry Day to discuss medical countermeasure (MCM) development.

The conference is a great opportunity for organizations working in the field to present information or to engage BARDA experts directly. If you want to tell us about your work in this area you can request a meeting today through www.MedicalCountermeasures.gov.

Industry:

BARDA's Broad Spectrum Antimicrobials Program supports development of novel antibacterial drugs to treat or prevent biological threats and the increasingly prevalent public health threat of antibiotic resistance.

By supporting development of new antibiotics, we can help decrease the impact that antibiotic resistance could have during a public health emergency. This is because antibiotic resistance has the potential to complicate standard health care treatment of infections during a natural disaster or pandemic.

BARDA’s core services, technical assistance and funding can be beneficial to biotech and pharmaceutical companies working on new antibiotics Americans will need in an emergency. If you have an antibacterial drug candidate in development to treat these life threatening drug resistant infections, consider engaging with BARDA through our TechWatch program prior to responding to our Broad Agency Announcement.

Image of child with a serious facial expression. Caption: Get smart. Know when antiobiotics work.

To meet the threat of antibiotic resistance, the government and private sector must work together. BARDA’s public-private partnerships with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have begun revitalizing the pipeline. But bacteria never stop evolving. Looking to the future, the antibiotic pipeline will need to be refreshed continually. Ongoing partnerships between government, industry and academia will be critical. In the meantime, the efforts and awareness of individual citizens can do much to slow the emergence of resistance and help us preserve the antibiotics we have.

Industry partners are encouraged to visit the BARDA BAA and request a TechWatch meeting.

September 03
Expecting the Unexpected

Authors: Karen B. DeSalvo, M.D., M.P.H., M.Sc., National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Gregg S. Margolis, Ph.D., NRP, Director, Division of Health System Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The question isn’t whether or not we will have another disaster – it is just a matter of when, where and how severe it will be. The recent earthquake in Northern California, centered near Napa, serves as a reminder that we must be prepared for the unexpected no matter where we live.

Northern California’s largest quake since 1989 happened in a large state where ONC has been working for the past year to ensure health data access every day and especially during disasters. In fact, in April of this year, we issued an assessment on available opportunities to address potential disasters in California and along the Gulf Coast.

Based on those assessments and our expectations of a catastrophic event in California, ONC started working with state emergency medical services officials last year to begin connecting the state’s 35 health information exchange organizations (HIEs) and EMS organizations. This effort was launched to help ensure health data access during emergencies.

The program currently focuses on a pilot project in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties because of the robust HIE services that exist in these areas, coupled with the fact that tens of millions of people live in these parts of Southern California. However, the Northern California earthquake reminds us that there is much work to do, and it must happen faster statewide and nationwide. We simply cannot make assumptions about how best to prepare for emergencies. In recognition of the importance of this initiative, the HHS Idea Lab chose a joint ONC/ASPR proposal for the inaugural HHS Ventures Program. The team has been actively engaged on this project as well as other ways technology can improve the routine delivery of care as well as disaster response – all in an effort to create more resilient communities.

In late July this year, the White House hosted the Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative Demo-Day, an event which brought together hundreds of technologists, entrepreneurs, and members of the disaster response community to showcase tools that will make a tangible impact on the lives of survivors in large-scale emergencies. The Demo-Day was part of a larger initiative, a public-private and government-wide effort to find the most effective ways technology can empower first responders and survivors.

At the Demo-Day, HHS announced two new initiatives:

  • NowTrending.hhs.gov is an ASPR-sponsored website that gathers data from Twitter to help provide insight to local and state health departments and public health emergency entities on emerging trends in health and disasters. The data presented on this site is used to indicate potential health issues emerging in a population; build a baseline of Twitter trend data; engage the public on trending health or disaster topics; or to cross-reference other data sources.
  • The HHS At-Risk Resiliency Interactive Map is an open data map that is being co-sponsored by ASPR and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to show the number of electricity-dependent Medicare beneficiaries at the U.S. territory, state, county, and zip code level. The map also will use NOAA real-time weather-tracking capabilities to identify areas that may be impacted by severe weather and at risk for prolonged power outages. This interactive map is under development and anticipated to launch soon on www.phe.gov.

Technology and health information technology have the power to inform and help survivors, first responders, and local, state, tribal, territorial and federal governments with critical information and resources related to an emergency. The projects outlined above are just a few examples of the many ways we are working towards the goal of better preparing and supporting communities and survivors before, during and following a disaster.

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