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December 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Planning for a Pandemic

From the White House to the World Health Organization, word is we are closer to another influenza pandemic than at any time since 1968. But if your best response to the threat of a pandemic is to wash your hands more frequently, you might want to expand your action plan—which is what the federal courts are doing with the release of templates and materials on how to respond in a widespread public health threat. The pandemic plans are now part of the courts’ Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP), already in place.

“COOP typically covers issues that deal with facilities and infrastructure,” said Administrative Office (AO) Director James C. Duff, “and these new templates provide guidance on issues relating to people.”

Over a year ago, the Judiciary began to outline an approach for employee safety, continuity of operations, and means of communications in an influenza outbreak or pandemic. With AO guidance, information and procedures were developed by judges and unit executives in circuit, district and bankruptcy courts across the country, with input from several court advisory groups. To develop the templates, the AO’s Judiciary Emergency Preparedness Office (JEPO) coordinated with staff from the Department of Homeland Security and worked with consultants. While the templates outline strategies and planning for such elements as delegations of authority, essential functions, telework, alternate work sites, and recovery, each court is expected to tailor the templates to meet its specific local requirements.

“This is something we all need to be thinking about,” said Duff. “The last few years have demonstrated that planning is necessary for courts to recover in a timely manner from a catastrophic event and to continue to serve the people of this country.”

Federal planners are assuming that 30 percent of the overall population could be infected in a pandemic. Among working adults, an average of 20 percent could become ill. Rates of absenteeism will depend on the severity of the pandemic. Some employees will be sick, while others will need to stay home to care for ill family members. And it is conceivable that certain public health measures, such as school closings, quarantining of infected households and government closures will increase the rate of absenteeism. All told, absenteeism could reach 40 percent during peak outbreak weeks.

“The federal Judiciary responded in an exemplary way to the damage and upheaval from Hurricane Katrina. You always learn from events like that and one of the lessons we learned from Hurricane Katrina,” said Duff, “is that you have to plan for situations in which your staff is spread out, or for whatever reason they cannot get to the office.”

The advance pandemic planning of Chief Judge Joseph F. Bataillon (D. Neb.) and his district strongly influenced the final templates. “We formed a subcommittee,” said Bataillon, “that looked at our COOP specifically in terms of how to function in a pandemic situation and how that would affect our clerks and probation offices, and judicial chambers. I don’t know if we solved all the problems, but we now have procedures in place to minimize the impact.” Assuming that staff would be reduced by 40-50 percent in a pandemic, the district extended the chain of command, looked at their capacity for remote work, determined how they would operate with a skeleton staff, consulted with local public health officials, and ran a desktop exercise. Many questions remain, however. “We want to plan so that people can rely on the courts,” said Bataillon. “But will we be able to bring a jury together if people are quarantined? Can we even hold trials? What would that mean for criminal cases under the Speedy Trial Act?”

In the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, employees can review the court’s pandemic action plan on their internal website. “We also tested the home portion of the plan,” said Clerk of Court Pat Brune, “by sending folks home last summer to work for a week. That way we could understand the strain on the system over and above our usual telecommuting schedule.”

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana also has its emergency preparedness plan on its website as a source of information for staff, and staff have been briefed, in conjunction with their periodic occupant emergency plan reviews.

“We gave a presentation on pandemic flu, what it is, how it spreads, and the worldwide status,” said Clerk of Court Laura Briggs. “We emphasized that telework would be the key to court operations and that criminal matters would likely become the most critical.”

The district formed a task force with representatives from the various court units, largely to be clear on what types of work were critical, and how things could move through the judicial system in the event few—or no—employees came to work. Staff at the court have been encouraged to sign up for access to the Judiciary’s virtual private network, and a databank has been created with information on staff, their families, phone numbers, addresses, and home computer capabilities. “This will be the resource we utilize in the event of a pandemic,” said Briggs, “both as a means of contacting family members if someone here falls ill, and as a way to determine who can do what from home.”

Other courts, such as the Second Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York have incorporated staff briefings on a possible pandemic into their periodic security briefings. District Court Executive Clifford Kirsch says the Southern District of New York is planning a test of its pandemic procedures for the initial processing of defendants from remote locations. The Northern District of West Virginia is developing a telework training program which will enable any employee to be immediately placed into a telework situation. The district also will hold a COOP and pandemic training retreat this spring that will give each court unit a proactive, hands-on involvement in table top exercises. “Our goal,” said Clerk of Court Wally Edgell, “is not to scare anyone, but to prepare everyone!”

JEPO Chief William Lehman agrees. “Courts and court units are advised to review their COOP plans and incorporate the planning assumptions, considerations, and guidance on pandemic influenza,” said Lehman. “The templates provide a strategy to continue the business of the court during a pandemic, and to protect the health and welfare of court employees.”