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Cook County health official: Bird flu would be like 50 hurricanes

Thursday, October 05, 2006
Pioneer Press
by CASEY MOFFITT Staff Writer

First responders, business leaders and health-care workers converged at the Cook County Circuit Court in Rolling Meadows to learn more about how the Cook County Department of Public Health is preparing for a bird flu pandemic and the challenges that go along with it.
The Health Department scheduled four different meetings on the topic. The Sept. 26 meeting in Rolling Meadows invited people from the northern parts of the county.
"Imagine 50 (Hurricane) Katrinas across the county," said Dr. Stephen Martin, chief operating officer of the Health Department, in describing the potential magnitude of a pandemic flu. "There is nothing the federal government can do to respond."
That is why it is so important for the county's Health Department officials to reach out to local first responders and business leaders, Martin said.
"The effort by first responders has been tremendous," he said. "But we're still struggling to get policies together. We need input to shape the policies we're putting together."
Partners needed
Although Martin said he is convinced the initial response to a pandemic flu will be "fabulous," he said the challenge will be sustaining that response until things return to normal.
"Public health cannot do this alone," he said. "We need partners."
Everyone from local police departments, highway departments, hospitals and businesses will have to work together to reduce the spread of the disease and limit the loss of life, Martin said. Businesses will have to play a large role and find out ways they can continue business while allowing sick workers to stay at home.
Businesses should also stress general hygiene, Martin said, including washing hands, cough etiquette and maintaining distances from co-workers to limit the spread of the disease.
"All of these things work," he said. "Put it in your newsletters."
'Worried well'
Police officers and public works employees might be needed for crown control, Martin said, as hospitals are worried of being overrun with patients or their family members.
"It's not the truly ill we have to worry about," he said, "but the worried well."
However, the sick could also have to get used to new procedures at the hospital.
Hospital staff shortage
Mary Casey-Lockyer, emergency response coordinator for Northwest Community Hospital, said hospitals will struggle with manpower and might have to establish a triage system to help the sick.
"We may have one nurse for every 20 people," she said. "We don't want to do it. We don't like it, but we may have to do it."
Another concern hospitals face is a lack of ventilators. Since the disease affects the respiratory system, many ventilators will be needed in the case of a pandemic flu. Hospitals will also have to stockpile additional beds, medications and equipment.
"We have just in time supply chains and just in time staffing," Casey-Lockyer said. "These are all the issues health care is dealing with."
So far there is no sign the bird flu has made its way to the Unites States, and the virus has yet to mutate to spread from person to person.
However, it is believed previous pandemic flu virus strains originated in birds, said Dr. Catherine Counard, the Health Department's assistant medical director for communicable disease control, and this strain has been particularly deadly.
"We have never discovered a disease killing wildlife species across the world like this," she said.
Counard also noted 50 percent of people who have contracted the virus have died. She compared that with the 1918 pandemic flu, in which a third of the population was infected, but only 2.5 percent of those infected died.
"We have never seen this kind of lethality in a flu virus before," she said. "This strain is very infective and highly lethal."
Relaying information
Because of the strain on resources a pandemic flu could impose, Martin said local authorities will be needed to relay information to the public.
"We need relationships locally of people the public trusts," he said. "This is not a response on top of a response."
Martin also said it is critical for local authorities to share their experience with the Health Department, so they can be relayed to the 125 communities in Cook County.

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