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The Need for Increased Disaster and Emergency Preparedness

According to the American Red Cross, more than 200 million people globally are affected by disasters each year. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other global agencies gathered to discuss strategies that would reduce disaster risk and declared health central to a new global plan for disaster risk reduction. At this gathering the Sendai framework was created, which outlines the need for global action to reduce the disaster risk. Closer to home, two recent announcements are poised to impact emergency and disaster preparedness in the U.S., underscoring the importance of strong and cohesive disaster preparation.

On Sept. 8, 2016, the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized the landmark ruling Disaster Readiness, the first ever in their history. This ruling comes in the wake of a series of disasters that saw inadequate responses in the public health and health care sectors. One such disaster was Hurricane Katrina, recognized as a leadership failure on various levels, as well as the more recent Superstorm Sandy, the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of 2012. Sandy led to both full and partial patient evacuations across six New York City area hospitals. The new CMS ruling is designed to ensure that facilities are adequately prepared to meet patient needs during emergency situations and disasters, and gives Medicare and Medicaid providers 12 months to comply with best practice standards. While the majority of large medical health care systems in the U.S. already have adequate preparedness measures in place, many health care facilities in the U.S. will be challenged to meet the extensive requirements outlined in the new ruling.

Comprehensive disaster preparedness is also a crucial priority for health care workers. Take the two nurses who became infected with Ebola after providing direct care to an infected patient who was hospitalized in Texas. Although both nurses recovered, the implications of their infection were made explicitly clear. These first cases of occupational transmission of Ebola in the U.S. were at least part of the impetus for the creation of the OSHA Infectious Disease Standard, which declares the need for increased measures to ensure healthcare workforce safety. OSHA reinforced this message, stating on their website, “Transmission-based infection control guidelines, though readily available, are not consistently followed.” The newly published OSHA draft standard is scheduled for review in December of 2016.

Educating Public Health Professionals About Disaster Preparedness

Ensuring effective disaster and emergency preparedness means equipping public health and health care professionals at all levels with the skills and strategies that they can implement in their communities. OOMPH offers two elective courses that focus on emergency and disaster relief. Dr. Robyn Gershon, adjunct professor at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UC Berkeley, developed and teaches these OOMPH courses. Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response includes an online Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Incident Command System certification, generally required for employment in the field of public health emergency preparedness. Global Health Disaster Preparedness and Response is geared toward public health professionals who may work abroad and be exposed to a wider range of disaster events.

Says Gershon, “Several of our students have transitioned to high-level positions in the area of public health emergency preparedness (EP) at the local, state and federal levels, both in the U.S. and abroad. They have also landed EP jobs and, in some cases, provided leadership and initiative in this area by creating EP positions for themselves at their workplace. Several have moved into positions that did not even exist a year ago, for example Zika Coordinator. The OOMPH program is preparing students for cutting-edge jobs in emerging, high-priority areas of public health, as well as the private sector.”

Dr. Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director General for Emergencies at WHO, remarked, “Recent and ongoing disasters—from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the Ebola crisis in West Africa—highlight the centrality of human health to our collective goals in disaster risk reduction by all sectors.” Professor Gershon agrees, adding, “OOMPH students are uniquely positioned to meet public health challenges as we move collectively toward more effective disaster risk reduction, at home and abroad.”


Special thanks to Dr. Robyn Gershon for contributing to this article.

Robyn Gershon, Dr.P.H., M.H.S. is an interdisciplinary scientist working in the field of occupational and environmental health. She is an adjunct professor at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UC Berkeley and an affiliated faculty member of Berkeley’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Emergency Readiness. Dr. Gershon is a Professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. She received her doctoral degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Public Health, where she was on faculty for several years. Gershon’s research focuses on three major areas: high risk work settings and work occupations, disaster preparedness and occupational health, and the translation of epidemiological research findings into organizational practices and regulatory control.