Nursing professional uses homeland security degree to help community

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When an earthquake or tornado strikes, emergency officials implement a disaster response plan. When the emergency is E.coli, Ebola or norovirus, infectious hazards response plans are not as common, a local nursing professional learned.

Shelley Haffner, the infectious disease manager at Penn State’s University Health Services, identified the lack of infectious hazards response plans while studying in Penn State World Campus’ master’s degree in homeland security’s public health preparedness option. She reached out to emergency managers at Penn State and the State College region to develop a plan for responding to infectious disease outbreaks.

“A disease outbreak on a college campus will quickly spread to the local community,” said Haffner, who works full time while she completes her degree online. “When you’re responding to a disaster of any kind, it takes a community to have an effective response.”

At work, Haffner monitors reports of diseases on campus and keeps tabs on trends reported by state and federal health officials. Responding to an infectious disease outbreak can be tricky at times and requires a unique response because different pathogens have varied incubation periods. For instance, chicken pox incubates for up to three weeks while symptoms of norovirus, or stomach flu, can develop within hours of exposure.

“You have to be ready for those that are going to hit hard and fast, and you have to wait for the ones that will take longer time,” she said.

Haffner said the plan includes the organizations or people to respond, what duties they will have, and how tasks will be handled operationally and logistically, such as checking supplies — like pharmaceuticals — to handle the response. 

“We have to figure out what can we do, how we can meet the needs medically, and where do we need to take it from there,” she said. “We need to be prepared because it can spread.”

Haffner began working on the plan in an independent study course with her adviser, professor Eugene Lengerich at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey. She said she worked with Pam Soule in Penn State’s Emergency Management Office and Shawn Kauffman from Centre Region Emergency Management to put plans in place and begin training.

She presented the project in April at the national Preparedness Summit in Dallas.

Haffner, 57, has worked in nursing for 36 years, and she is interested in doing disaster relief work when she retires. She enrolled in the master’s program in 2013 in preparation for that.

“I’ve learned much from my World Campus program, and I have worked with amazing course instructors and wonderful people,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to utilize my education at my current job, and someday, once I’ve retired, I’d very much like to become involved in disaster relief work. My training should help with that.”

For more information about the homeland security degree program, visit the Penn State World Campus website.

Last Updated June 03, 2016