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Center for Engagement and Community Development

Biosecurity Research Institute teams with Mercy Regional Health Center

Written by Logan Falletti

When diagnosing most patients, Dr. Francis Koopman believes “when you hear hoofbeats, look for horses.” But when it comes to certain patients, like those from Kansas State University’s Biosecurity Research Institute, his team “looks for zebras.” The BRI researches many significant zoonotic pathogens that could spread from animals to humans. Swine flu, yellow fever, tularemia, rift valley fever, anthrax and even plague are all studied in the building. Mercy Regional Health Center performs special health surveillance for uncommon diseases as part of a medical partnership that keeps zoonotic research safe for the scientists and the community.

K-State became one of Mercy’s largest clients in 2008. While the university does have a health center on campus, it caters specifically to students. When employees of K-State have a work-related illness or injury, they go to the occupational health and medicine branch at Mercy West. This type of partnership is required by law to keep the area safe, including mandatory medical assessments for certain levels of clearance and possible extended health monitoring for those working with certain agents.

Mercy West performs physicals, administers drug and alcohol tests, assesses patients for worker’s compensation claims and conducts Department of Transportation medical exams. They also perform tasks that cannot be done in a normal doctor’s office such as mask fittings and respiratory exam clearances. The university and hospital work together to determine exposure and reduce treatment delays.

“If a researcher is working on a project and gets a fever, they have to report it and then come here,” said Koopman.

The BRI works with some Tier 1 agents, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified as diseases with the highest potential to cause illness or be used in bioterrorism threats. For that reason, Mercy West may pretreat a patient before symptoms appear and follow up after treatment from any doctor. All staff members of the BRI carry an identification card with the names of the bacteria and viruses with which they work as well as contact information for the safety office. Nearly all patients are treated at the occupational health facility. If a researcher is found to be infected, Mercy has isolation rooms.

“It’s been a great partnership; it works very well and is very beneficial. Mercy was already an established partner [in worker’s compensation], but they were willing to take us on. If someone was to become affected, they are right here willing to work with us. Contracting out to somewhere… could take too much time to transport patients,” said Erin Smith, biosafety specialist and alternate response official at the BRI.

Mercy also provides vaccine education to anyone who works in the BRI. Employees can weigh the pros and cons of optional vaccines and receive recommendations to other facilities if needed.

“They want to build a culture of safety in there, and we’re just one piece of that,” said Koopman.

Mercy currently has no plans to service the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction in Manhattan.