Western Slope training exercise simulates mass H1N1 outbreak
CARBONDALE, Colorado – A simulated mass H1N1 influenza outbreak was chosen months ago as the situation for a Colorado Northwest Incident Management Team training exercise, rather than any sort of response to recent flu cases in area schools and throughout Colorado, organizers said.
The training exercise, held Friday and continuing today at the Carbondale Fire Department Training Center, involves emergency responders and public health officials from more than 25 agencies throughout northwest Colorado.
“It’s an opportunity to not only work on our skills coordinating an incident as a team, but we’re also learning what H1N1 might mean to us and our communities,” said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger, incident commander for this weekend’s exercise.
The main message for the public continues to be that there’s no need to panic, he said.
Public health officials have also repeatedly stressed that the 2009 H1N1 (swine) flu poses no greater health risk than typical seasonal flu.
“The underlying message we’ve heard today is that, yes, it’s a different strain than we’re used to dealing with, but it’s still the flu and the same precautions apply,” Henninger said.
Added Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach, “We want to put out a consistent message so the public doesn’t get conflicting messages.
“We don’t want to alarm people with this,” he said. “We don’t see a crisis looming in the valley, or anything like that.”
The event did provide an opportunity for public health officials to give an update on surveillance efforts with area hospitals and schools and plans for administering flu vaccines.
Public health officials from Garfield and Pitkin counties noted that seasonal flu vaccinations are under way, but supplies of the vaccine are running low. Eagle County has yet to receive its supply, said Becky Larson, and epidemiologist with the county health department.
The H1N1-specific vaccine is expected to arrive in Colorado by mid-October. However, it will likely be administered on a priority basis to high risk groups first. Parameters for administering shots will be announced at the time the vaccine arrives, said Yvonne Long with the Garfield County Public Health Department.
Meanwhile, Friday’s training exercise involved a simulated event in which the Carbondale Fire Department calls for assistance due to the fact that 30 percent of its staff is down with flu. Local schools have also been closed, the fire department is averaging six flu-related ambulance transports per day, and one flu-related fatality has occurred.
“The objective is to practice our skills as an incident management team using an H1N1 scenario,” Leach said. “We get the team together once a year for an exercise, and it just so happened that this year we chose an H1N1 incident.”
Shannon Cordingly, public information officer for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, said that what’s learned during a training exercise carries over to any type of incident, whether it’s a natural disaster or public health emergency.
“And, we’d rather learn if something doesn’t work here, before we find out in a real incident,” she said.
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