05/12/06 — Officials ready for flu, just in case

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Officials ready for flu, just in case

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 12, 2006 1:55 PM

A local group formed to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic flu situation is determined to educate the public and to create a readiness response plan.

A pandemic is a disease outbreak that spreads quickly around the world. In recent months, there has been growing concern over the possibility of widespread influenza, commonly referred to as the avian or "bird" flu virus, officials said at a meeting this week.

The bird flu virus has caused destruction of 100 million chickens and killed 115 humans worldwide since late 2003, with some predicting that it is just a few genetic steps away from becoming one of the deadliest human epidemics in nearly a century.

To date, the virus, called H5N1, has not been passed from human to human. But experts say if or when it does, it will produce a highly infectious virus that could spread rapidly around the world within weeks.

Unlike a bioterrorism event, a pandemic flu would last longer and come in waves, said Shirley Harkey, chief nursing officer at Wayne Memorial Hospital.

The Influenza Working Group, which includes physicians and representatives from several agencies around Wayne County, began meeting several weeks ago. Members say early preparation will be essential, since any type of pandemic could overwhelm the local medical community, public services, businesses, delivery systems and other services.

Dr. Ernest Marshall, who spearheads the group, said that having a pandemic flu plan will address surveillance of flu trends, community education, training for health care workers, community education, patient care both outside and inside the hospital, security and shortages of medicines, vaccinations, hospital beds, supplies and more.

The biggest challenge will not be finding beds, doctors, nurses and medicine, he said. It will be coordination and communication.

"In that respect, we are ahead of the game here in Wayne County in planning for a flu pandemic," he said.

He said the theme for the working group could be broken down to self-reliance.

"We should go into this with the idea that we plan the best we can, we do the best we can. We do not point fingers or pass judgment," he said, noting that one thing he found counterproductive during Hurricane Katrina was the amount of blame that was placed afterwards.

Lt. Col. Joseph Schurhammer, public health officer for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, is also a member of the group. He said it is important to remember that regardless of everyone's affiliation, in a time of crisis, that will not matter.

"We in the county are all in the same boat. Medical and emergency services throughout Wayne County have been involved in planning an effective community response for some time now. If a pandemic were to occur, we realize that the arrival of national and state resources for Wayne County may be delayed if other places are hit harder.

"This is why we must plan for the use of local medical and emergency response resources as effectively as possible."

Another issue the group has discussed is the potential shortage of local health workers and other vital staff and volunteers.

At its most recent meeting, Chuck Waller, director of the American Red Cross in Wayne County, said he understands the crippling effect of having insufficient help. With a small staff, his organization is reliant on volunteers, he said.

Health Director Jim Roosen estimated the need for 350 people to staff mass vaccination clinics for at least three days.

"That is, if we have a vaccine," he added. "It is clear that several agencies would have to donate staff to implement that plan successfully. It's easy to calculate the resources needed but finding trained people to manage patient flow and to give vaccine is a challenge. Without a vaccine, the few weapons we have are community education and isolation and quarantine."

Some of the possible scenarios of a pandemic event were depicted in a TV movie earlier this week, "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America." Several members of the group said that while the movie was Hollywood's version, it was on target in many respects.

"There were some important points in the movie that the public needs to know," Marshall said. "This is not an issue of eating chicken and getting the virus. Cooked chicken is safe because the virus dies. We're not concerned about poultry to poultry transmission. It's human to human transmission when the pandemic begins."

At this point, it is essential to make plans that feed into a larger, unified plan, Marshall said.

"It's important that all agencies, public and private, think about how they would handle an event where employees may not be able to work, where essential services are curtailed and where we may have to hunker down and weather a severe communicable disease event," Roosen said. "We want people to take the possibility of a flu pandemic very serious without panicking."

David Hesselmeyer, the county's bioterrorism planner, said that Wayne County already participates in the Strategic National Stockpile, a reserve of medicines and medical equipment that can be sent to local municipalities in times of emergency.

Donna Edmundson, employed by Wayne Memorial Hospital, is also on the Board of Health and chairs the Wayne County Red Cross board. She said that many of the preparations the public can do for a pandemic are similar to what eastern North Carolinians do before hurricane season -- stockpile water, food and medicines.

Members of the task force say there are many ways individuals, families and schools can ready themselves for whatever may happen. The federal Department of Health and Human Services has developed checklists for businesses, schools, health care providers and community organizations. It is found on the Web site www.pandemicflu.gov.