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Preparing for Emerging Infectious Disease Threats: The Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit

By: Lauren Sauer, director of research for the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit and director of operations for CEPAR


Team members participate in a drill of the
Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit in February.

On Feb. 6 and 7, the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit (BCU) hosted the National Ebola Training and Education Center (NETEC) for a site visit and concurrently ran a “day in the life” drill, which exercised the daily operations capabilities of the BCU. The unit is a state-of-the-art facility designed to care for patients with highly infectious diseases, such as Ebola, and has activated on three occasions since it officially opened on May 20, 2015. The February NETEC site visit was a success, with the BCU scoring exceptionally well in all areas under review, with no noted areas for improvement. NETEC’s mission is to increase the capability of United States public health and health care systems to safely and effectively manage individuals with suspected and confirmed special pathogens. During their visit, NETEC officials were excited to see the innovation that the BCU team is accomplishing through research and training and exercise, which will support efforts to move away from specifically treating patients with Ebola toward the capacity to treat patients with any highly infectious disease. 

This drill, which ran in tandem with the NETEC site visit, challenged several components of the institution’s capacities and preparedness, including communication, emergency management, interdisciplinary collaboration, incident command structure and waste removal. It also allowed us to test several medical procedures, including placement of a central venous catheter, or central line, on a patient. The drill uncovered a number of important opportunities to improve our processes and protocols, and highlighted the incredible innovation, creativity, perseverance and dedication of the BCU and all collaborators.

This was the second full-scale exercise that the BCU drill organizers have run in the last few months. In November, the BCU team participated in a drill involving a simulated pregnant patient who went into labor in the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, but was quickly identified as suspected to have an unknown, novel and highly pathogenic respiratory illness. The mock patient was then transported to the BCU by the Johns Hopkins Lifeline critical care transport team in a specially designed isolation stretcher. The patient was rapidly admitted under the care of BCU nurses, an obstetrics team and a neonatal team, who were all donned in enhanced personal protective equipment (PPE), cared for the patient and then delivered her baby.

In the wake of a particularly bad flu season, these drills, our research program and additional training opportunities that continue to be conducted on the BCU, even when it is not activated, remain critical to the safe and effective management of highly infectious disease patients. The BCU serves as an exceptional resource that allows us to innovate infection control practices, practice safe patient transport and management, and plan for the next infectious disease outbreak, to keep our patients, employees and community safe and healthy.