USDA Concepts of Operations (CONOPS) Exercise

In October 2015 USDA APHIS partnered with the ZAHP Fusion Center to hold an internet based tabletop exercise designed to test the updated Concept of Operations Plan for responding to HPAI at a zoological facility. The exercise brought representatives from zoos and regulatory agencies in California, Colorado, and Florida together to demonstrate response structures and strategies for responding to HPAI.

The scenario relied on increased threat levels followed by onsite HPAI infections at multiple zoos.  States were provided with a variety of existing HPAI response conditions at the beginning of the exercise including significant concurrent commercial infections, backyard/non-commercial avian infections, and even the zoo as the first HPAI case in domestic or captive avian facilities in the state.

Planning time for the exercise was severely limited as it was mounted concurrent real-world HPAI crisis as part of APHIS’s Fall Plan for a potential resurgence.  Despite this, the exercise had a positive value overall and highlighted a number of key focal points for future planning and response efforts including:

  •  The need to reach out to multiple state and local agencies in planning for HPAI at zoos, including public health, environmental health, and emergency management. The potential for zoonotic transmission of any influenza virus is a significant public health concern, and as such actions to protect staff and the public are under the authority of public health authorities.
  • The importance of developing staff respiratory protection programs in zoological facilities. Such programs are necessary to support disease response and ensure continuity of business.  If a facility does not have a program that meets State or OSHA requirements staff may be put at risk, and the zoo may be unable to remain open or mount an adequate response.
  • Feedback on the exercise overall, including the need for additional outreach for the Zoo CONOPs plan,  the value of facilitating more direct conversations between zoos and regulatory agencies as well as public information staff, and other design issues.

The zoos involved in the exercise had done a significant amount of planning and preparation for HPAI ahead of time and had existing positive relationships with their State Animal Health Officials.  There was a great deal of meaningful discourse between players on discussion boards, with zoos and agencies accommodating a more rapid than anticipated scenario.  Overall the players that were able to examine the HPAI Zoo CONOPS Plan and Job Aids found them helpful in their preparations and play.