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COVID-19 dominates daily news headlines as communities and organizations evaluate policies regarding public gatherings, quarantines, and other issues. Many states, including New York and California, have declared states of emergency in order to free up budgets to prepare for what public health officials believe will be a continuing crisis. At the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) teams are installing tents on their campus to act as triage centers. Massachusetts General Hospital established an ad hoc clinic outside its emergency department.

While the current public health concerns may not be considered an “emergency” yet in your community, there is a likelihood that your organization’s operations may be impacted by ongoing developments. Everything from supply chain disruption to staff absenteeism due to isolation measures may negatively impact a project. For example, a supply chain disruption can impact an organization’s ability to obtain biological specimens, safety or lab equipment, or other supplies. Disasters are not limited to weather or geophysical incidents such as floods and earthquakes. Biological disasters such as pandemics should also be considered in planning.

Elements of a disaster plan

Disaster and business continuity planning are essential for any research organization. Organizations that receive National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding are required to have these plans in place. A solid plan, supported by rigorous training of staff, can mitigate impacts on timelines and the integrity of research projects. A typical plan covers four main areas:

  • Reduction or mitigation of risks — for example, ensuring there is enough personal protective clothing or equipment (PPE) for staff in case of unplanned shortages
  • Readiness or preparedness — training and conducting regular practice drills for staff, as well as establishing communications protocols and a chain of command for decision-making
  • Response — establishing a command center to coordinate resources and communication
  • Recovery — engaging local, state and federal officials, as well as collaborating with other organizations or research sites, in re-establishing operations and communities

Business continuity

Central to any effective disaster plan are clearly defined procedures for ensuring the continuity of business and research operations, as well as clear communications.

Organizations should regularly back-up servers and technology systems, including email servers, financial and credentialing systems, and other key databases. As many companies and local governments are encouraging people to work from home, this may be a good time to revisit remote access security to information systems and private health data. Additionally, it may also be a good time to consider establishing a videoconference system to ensure ongoing collaboration among colleagues who may not be working at the same location.

Organizations should consider establishing partnerships with other research facilities to share resources and information. This is particularly the case for organizations engaged in multi-site research. A crisis communications plan, often mistakenly considered an exclusive function of the public relations department, should include a robust outline of strategies to address collaborating organizations, regulatory agencies, vendors and suppliers, and accreditation organizations.

A well-considered disaster or crisis plan is not only required for organizations, but will also help ease confusion and mitigate costly or dangerous mistakes. Organizations interested in reviewing their disaster plan, or that need to establish one, are encouraged to review CITI Program’s online course: Disaster Planning for the Research Enterprise.

Add Disaster Planning for the Research Enterprise to my organization’s offerings.