Friday, August 28, 2009

Pandemic flu event staged:

by LAREIGN WARD, Press Argus-Courier Staff
Wednesday, August 26, 2009 10:10 AM CDT

Law enforcement joined with other emergency personnel, as well as local business and government leaders, for a Monday night exercise on how to react in case of a pandemic flu event.

The tabletop exercise was hosted by the Crawford County Local Emergency Planning Committee, the Crawford County Department of Emergency Management and the Crawford County Health Unit.

Jason Parks, chair of the planning committee, served as event facilitator. There were five modules, each of which offered up a hypothetical series of events for attendees to respond to and discuss.

Module A outlined the early stages of a new flu pandemic, dubbed H17N10, a combination of seasonal flu, the H1N1 virus and H5N1. While nationwide travel quarantines are issued by the Centers for Disease Control in late January, the new virus reaches the U.S. in March through a diplomat returning from the Phillippines. A vaccine is under development, with authorities hoping to have it available for distribution by October.

Parks told attendees that the new virus thrives in the summer and by September, all hospitals across the country are starting to fill up, including Summit Medical Center in Van Buren. Schools are shut down as the second wave of infection begins.

With an attack rate of 35 percent, 4,000 people are sickened in September, with thousands more expected to get sick over the coming months. The exercise expected 12 percent to be hospitalized, and two percent to die, with 60 percent of the sick 12 or under.

"What is the most important question you should be asking yourself in regards to your department or agency at this point?" Parks asked the attendees. He then gave each table a few minutes to talk among themselves and figure things out.

At one table, Donald Baltz with the Van Buren Fire Department referred to the tiered allocation for vaccines that's recommended in severe pandemics. The tier recommends protecting those who are "essential to the pandemic response and provide care for persons who are ill."

"We're on the critical list," Baltz said. "Hopefully we would have gotten our people inoculated."

Crawford County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Aaron Beshears mentioned mutual aid agreements with other agencies as a way to fill in the gap, but also said every agency will be understaffed because of the pandemic.

Also at the table was Van Buren Deputy Superintendent Lonnie Myers, who did some quick math to estimate just how many Van Buren students would be stricken.

"Worst-case scenario, we'd have about 3,000 kids sick," Myers said. "That's a lot of kids, isn't it? That's 60 percent of elementary and 40 percent of secondary (students) that we're talking about."

After a few minutes, Parks halted the discussion and went around each table to ask what each group had decided.

"Our concern initially, on our very first question, is how do we protect our responders," Sgt. George Cabaniss with the Van Buren Police Department said. "They're the first people, because folks, if we go down, there's no one else."

Later, attendees had to deal with how to get the vaccine out to as many people as possible without infecting others. A flu clinic is scheduled to be held at a single location, the old National Guard Armory building in Van Buren. When a limited supply of the vaccine arrives with little advance warning, word starts to spread and people begin camping out at the armory to get a shot.

Crawford County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Shawn Firestine suggested moving the vaccine clinic to another location, setting up quietly to avoid the mob.

Some in the room questioned having the clinic at one location, especially considering the size of the large and panicked crowd.

"Keep in mind that this is a worst-case scenario," Parks said. "I'm doing my best to tie your hands behind your back."

The recent emergence of the 2009-H1N1 virus — sometimes referred to as swine flu — has brought disaster plans to the forefront on a local and national level. According to the CDC's Web site, more cases are anticipated during the fall and winter, although the severity of the situation is hard to anticipate at this point. The U.S. government is working with manufacturers to develop a vaccine, which should become available in the fall.

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