K-State, Mercy Regional Partner to Create Safer Work Environment for Bioscientists

A partnership between Kansas State University and Mercy Regional Health Center is ready to provide medical care oversight and occupational health response plans for high profile biosecurity laboratories in Manhattan, Kan.

The partnership currently is in place for K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute, a biosafety level 3 and biosafety level 3 agriculture facility. With the opening of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, NBAF, in 2018, university and Mercy leaders will continue adjusting occupational health practices and medical procedures that can apply to biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories. NBAF will be a BSL-4 laboratory.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will operate NBAF. Research at NBAF and K-State’s BRI focuses on diseases that exist naturally in the world – such as classical swine fever and Rift Valley fever. Researchers say performing such infectious disease studies helps protect the nation from biological threats by developing effective vaccines and other treatments.

“This partnership enables K-State to perform essential biosecurity and infectious disease research in a safe environment while ensuring that everyone is prepared in the unlikely event of an accident in the lab,” K-State President Kirk Schulz said.

The partnership is twofold: Mercy’s occupational health services program, led by Theresa Crubel, director and registered nurse, prepares preventative treatment while a planning team at Mercy provides preparedness. In turn, K-State gives Mercy accurate, up-to-date information about pathogens being researched at the BRI.

“Mercy is very excited about the partnership we currently have with K-State, and we look forward to working with NBAF management and the Department of Homeland Security as the plans for NBAF move forward,” said Mercy President and CEO John Broberg. “We will continue to work with K-State to ensure that we have prepared our physicians and staff appropriately to deal with medical and other emergency response events at NBAF.”

Mercy’s emergency services and administrative teams have toured BRI and are able to handle response needs in a biocontainment laboratory. Mercy emergency staff regularly attends biosecurity training to stay up-to-date on procedures. In the years before NBAF’s arrival, they will receive appropriate training for a BSL-4 laboratory, and the health center will assess facilities and adjust accordingly.

Manhattan and K-State are not the first to address occupational health concerns with BSL-4 laboratories. In 2005, when construction began on Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a BSL-4 laboratory in Hamilton, Mont., the laboratory partnered with St. Patrick Hospital in nearby Missoula, Mont. Crubel said the hospital and community share demographic similarities with Mercy and K-State, and Mercy personnel plan to visit Montana to learn from the hospital staff.

Crubel and other Mercy leaders also have been networking with colleagues around the country and attended a recent conference on treating biological exposures.

“We’re aware that we have work to do to be fully prepared for a BSL-4 facility like NBAF,” Crubel said. “But we’re far, far ahead because we’ve been able to do the BRI work. The research environment is very safe, and it is vital to perform this research. We can’t progress as a society without it.”

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