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In the Event of a Pandemic, What is your Plan?

In the Event of a Pandemic, What is your Plan?

By Kerry Munday

In the past few months, a lot of attention has been given to the Ebola outbreak.  It’s been all over the news, and guidelines are available world-wide on how to deal with the outbreak.  For example, the Center of Disease Control and Protection has released a document called Guidance for Safe Handling of Human Remains in Ebola Patients in U.S. Hospitals and Mortuaries Although this document provides excellent information on how to deal with Ebola, would you rely on it completely?  What about other outbreaks that may occur?    A sound plan is helpful in these instances, so that no critical step is missed.  It got me thinking of what I learned about Pandemic Planning several years ago.  I decided to look into what goes into a pandemic plan in the death care profession, and quickly learned that there is a lot more to planning for a pandemic than I anticipated. 

Some Things to Consider

When creating a Pandemic Plan, there are a number of factors to consider.  Here are some things that can be included:

Staffing

You will likely have to increase your staff substantially in order to handle a pandemic outbreak, not only to deal with the rise in deaths, but also to temporarily replace employees who fall ill. Retirees, students or volunteers are a good source to add to your staff.  You can also cross-train your staff.

Disposition

For cemeteries and crematoriums, you will be dealing with a large increase in the number of deceased, and will need to plan accordingly.  Doing more cremations rather than burials is an option, as is cold storage or, in extreme instances, mass graves.  Crematoriums may need to operate 24 hours per day.  Funeral Homes need to expedite the embalming process for families requesting it, to ensure the remains do not deteriorate.  Authorities may advise that special precautions be taken, based on the cause of the pandemic.

Death Certificates

The rise of infection and deaths, and a reduced workforce, may result in a potential delay to receive remains and death certificates.  Also, since many deaths may be occurring in homes, your jurisdiction will need to address who pronounces the death and who signs the death certificate.

Infection

The risk of infection for staff members will increase substantially, and as with Ebola, may be extremely high.  Staff should be up-to-date with all their vaccinations, should keep all areas clean and disinfected, dispose of bio-hazardous waste and will need to use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).  Proper training in the use of this equipment is a must.

Supplies

Stocking up to ensure you have enough supplies for several months will ensure that you do not run out.  With Funeral Homes, having more lower priced options on hand is a good idea, since many families will be dealing with several deaths and will not be able to afford higher priced options.

Communication

Clear communication with families is critical to explain any changes in the normal process, such as banning of public gatherings that may delay the funeral.  You may have to limit face to face meetings, and communicate via email or telephone.  The need for bereavement support will be higher, especially if the funeral is delayed.

Record Keeping

Additional information may be needed in the event of a pandemic.  Consideration should be made of how the information is recorded, and how it is reported.

Useful Information

Although a Pandemic Plan won’t be able to catch everything, it will certainly help your operation to run more smoothly.  For more information, please see the following: 

Preparing your Funeral Home for a Pandemic (National Funeral Directors Association)

The Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the Health Sector

Funeral Service Guide to Pandemic Planning

We all hope that these precautions will never be needed.  Although history tells us they will, if everyone has a plan in place, we may be able to contain the outbreak before the risk of the infection becomes widespread.