May 01, 2009 | | Comments 0
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At this point, it’s an unfair conclusion to say hospitals aren’t prepared for pandemics

Hi, it’s Scott Wallask, and boy do I feel for all of you putting in long hours because of the swine flu outbreak. A safety director at a hospital system in Columbus, OH, summed it up to me in a few words: “We are swamped.”

It sounds like some hospitals are teetering on the brink of being overrun with patients, many of whom ironically aren’t infected with H1N1 but think they might be. There was a hell of an article in the Los Angeles Times this morning discussing some of these plights.

However, I take issue with one of the overriding themes of the article, that being hospitals are proving to be ill-prepared for a pandemic. I’m not sure that conclusion is so simple.
If an arsonist goes on a burning spree in a community and the local fire department is struggling to keep up, you don’t accuse firefighters of being unprepared. Rather, they’re dealing as best they can with an unusual situation.

The same logic applies to the swine flu outbreak. You have hospital safety professionals and clinicians responding to a public health concern, yes, but they are also dealing with plenty of worried well or folks who might simply have a bad cold. Either way, there are a lot of people going to hospital ERs who shouldn’t be, and in doing so, they are overtaxing pandemic response plans.

It’s an interesting situation from a Joint Commission perspective, too. You don’t see any emergency management standards that specifically address planning for the worried well, but EM.03.01.03 does note the need to conduct emergency drills that involve an escalating event.

The surge in ER visits from the swine flu scare is a very different escalation that what we saw after Hurricane Katrina, but both scenarios do feature evolving situations that emergency planners must adapt to.

Entry Information

Filed Under: CDC/infection controlEmergency management


Scott Wallask About the Author: Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for HCPro's Hospital Safety Center ( and the award-winning newsletters, Briefings on Hospital Safety and Healthcare Life Safety Compliance. He has written about healthcare for HCPro since 1998, with a focus on occupational and building safety, emergency management, fire protection, and infection control. Prior to joining HCPro, he worked as a reporter for several newspapers in eastern Massachusetts. He holds a BA in print journalism, magna cum laude, from Northeastern University in Boston. Contact Scott at

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