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Flu Fighter: Dr. Lisa Koonin, DrPH, MN, MPH

Dr. Lisa Koonin is deputy director of CDC’s Influenza Coordination Unit (ICU), which operates within CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). In this vital role, she and her team work with groups across the agency to coordinate CDC’s pandemic flu planning efforts. When it comes to preparedness for the next flu pandemic, Dr. Koonin says “while we can’t predict it, we can plan for it.”

Dr. Lisa Koonin helps lead the agency’s preparedness activities for pandemic flu, including designing and executing exercises and simulations that test CDC’s pandemic response capacity. “The ICU includes an exercise team that creates and maintains CDC’s operational plan for a pandemic. We identify pandemic planning gaps and develop innovative solutions to fill those gaps. The ICU also includes our Medical Care and Counter Measures Task Force which is part of a pandemic response,” says Dr. Koonin.

Why the 1918 Pandemic Still Matters

In 1918, a flu pandemic swept the globe, killing at least 50 million people. An estimated 675,000 Americans died. Dr. Koonin says the 100-year commemoration of this event is “an important moment to share with the public so they can learn about the pandemic, pandemic planning, and actions they can take during a future pandemic to protect themselves and their families.”

Planning for a global pandemic that would last a year or more, and consist of multiple waves of flu activity, is a daunting task. The unpredictability of a pandemic is what worries Dr. Koonin the most. “We cannot predict when the next pandemic will occur, where it will start, or how severe it will be, so we have to be ready.”

Planning and Preparation are Critical; Challenges Remain

Response plans for pandemics with low, moderate, high, and very high severity scenarios are constantly under review, evolving and improving. A vaccine for a new pandemic flu virus likely won’t be available in large quantities for months, so immediate countermeasures would include the use of influenza antiviral drugs to treat the sick, and social distancing to slow the spread of disease as much as possible.

Dr. Koonin also leads CDC’s Flu on Call® project, an effort to create a national network of telephone help lines for use during a severe pandemic. It is in collaboration with public health and community organizations.  Its goals are to improve access to antiviral medications for sick people during a pandemic, direct sick people to the level of care they need, and to reduce the surge on medical facilities.

Being a Flu Fighter

Planning and preparing for a flu pandemic is a demanding, but fulfilling job for Dr. Koonin. “It’s why I get up in the morning and go to work. We have a lot to do to get ready for the next pandemic.” She says a severe pandemic is “not the kind of event you can create plans for on the fly,” emphasizing “it takes a large amount of focus and energy to create plans, test those plans, and refine those plans in order to prepare for a pandemic.”  Dr. Koonin says CDC’s Influenza Coordination Unit is focused on its mission. “The public needs to know that the CDC has staff planning for a flu pandemic full time.”

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