Public health nurses urge county commissioners to plan for bird flu
Just as the country prepared for fallout that didn’t materialize from Y2K at the turn of the century, so too should we be prepared for the bird flu to hit, whether it does or not. “Like Y2K, if nothing happens, even better,” Garfield County Public Health nurse Yvonne Long told the county commissioners Monday.Long sought to enlist the help of the commissioners if a feared pandemic of bird flu hits the country.”My big message to you is have a plan,” she said. “The feds will not come in and rescue us.”Bird flu originated in Hong Kong in 1997 in wild birds and spread to domestic species. It has so far hit Vietnam and Indonesia the hardest, causing governments to order millions of domestic fowl to be killed to prevent its spread. It has now been reported in birds throughout Asia and more recently the Middle East, Africa and some European countries. Human cases have been reported in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Iraq, Azerbajian and Egypt.Health officials are concerned the virus could mutate to a form that could pass easily from human to human. In all, 204 human cases have been reported and 113 deaths.What worries public health officials is that, like the flu pandemic, in 1918 that killed upwards of 40 million people worldwide, including 500,000 deaths in the United States, this new strain could have a devastating effect because people have no natural immunity. As of last week the federal government has already committed over $1 billion to produce antiviral drugs to help treat the disease, Long said.This year the Centers for Disease Control “asked public health departments to start planning for a pandemic flu,” Long said.Flu, explained public health nurse Sara Harter, is highly contagious. It takes only two days to get sick once you’ve caught the virus.”You can be contagious even before you’re sick,” she said.It spreads primarily through droplets from infected people who sneeze or cough into the air.Unlike the seasonal flu that hits between December and March every year, pandemics are “sporadic and there are increased fatalities,” Harter said. “Why is it of concern? Because we have no protection against it … no immunity.”Worldwide pandemics occurred three times in the 20th century. The most famous, and deadly, was the Spanish flu pandemic of the closing months of World War I, in 1918, which developed in birds in Fort Riley, Kan., and spread to humans.In 1957, the Asian flu caused 1-2 million deaths worldwide and 70,000 in this country. In 1968, the Hong Kong flu killed between 1 and 4 million people across the globe and 34,000 in the United States.”Even though it’s impossible to predict its impact,” Harter said, the CDC has used data from the 1918 Spanish Flu to estimate that about 30 percent of the population would catch bird flu if the country is hit by a pandemic.Although a vaccine could be developed, that could not happen until the actual strain hit the population. It also takes six to nine months to produce, she said.What worries public health officials is how to deal with the flu once it’s established in the population. In Garfield County, for example, with a population of about 48,000, over 14,000 could come down with bird flu, and about half of those would visit their doctor. Further, Long said, an estimated 1,600 people would have to be hospitalized.”We have 85 hospital beds (in Garfield County),” she said.The key to an effective plan for dealing with a pandemic in Garfield County is cooperation from the whole community, Long said. The primary means of containing the flu once it strikes is isolating people who are sick and quarantining people who have been exposed to the flu but are not ill.Thresholds should be set for closing places where large groups of people congregate, such as schools and churches, she said.”It’s not as big a problem as in Denver,” she added.People should also plan for sustaining themselves if food supplies run out. Business owners should identify the essential personnel needed to keep operating.”We need to come together as a community,” Long said, and be prepared individually and as a group.Long said she would like to present information about a possible pandemic at a series of community meetings.Most important, Long said, is “if you’re sick, stay home.” Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands often and use an alcohol-based hand gel.”It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when” the pandemic hits, said County Commissioner Larry McCown. “That’s why it’s so hard to plan for.”Commissioner Trési Houpt applauded the public health department’s efforts. “I think it’s very important people understand the importance (of planning) and not panic,” she said.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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UPDATE: Both westbound lanes and one eastbound lane of Interstate 70, according to a 12:20 a.m. update from Garfield County.