5.03.2009

The Swine Flu: Preparing For a Pandemic

by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

In 2007, a wildfire blew into my little California town on the fickle winds of Santa Ana, and all of Fallbrook was evacuated. Reverse 911 calls alerting us to leave town went out to some neighborhoods but not all — and people who use only cell phones were out of the loop. Without personal plans for evacuation, many of us tossed whatever was at hand into our vehicles, leaving behind vital documents, medicines and priceless keepsakes. We tried to beat a swift path to safety, but were confused about where we were supposed to go. One public agency’s outgoing message directed us to an evacuation shelter that didn’t exist. Then the firefighting teams from far and wide that came to our rescue ran smack into incompatible radio systems, but the engines and strike teams did their utmost best. Erroneous reports of the fire reaching the center of town, of rampant looting, of the burning of one of our schools were not corrected for hours.

When we returned three days later, the camaraderie of crisis made for some hilarious and poignant stories, but we were sobered by one compelling lesson learned: Be prepared to take care of yourself in a disaster, because the organizations we count on could be overwhelmed. More significant disasters have revealed the same lesson, New Orleans’ wrenching encounter with Hurricane Katrina, not the least of them. (For another take on the government's response to Katrina, please see: "Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Katrina & the Cesspool of American Politics.")

And now there’s a new influenza strain lurking, swine influenza A (H1N1), that has flirted with pandemic status. So what’s a wannabe self-sufficient person to do?


Don’t panic is perhaps the best first advice, despite Vice President Joe Biden’s impassioned suggestion that we stay away from airplanes and subways, a suggestion that evoked the standard pokes. Actually, his advice is not so far off the mark: If you didn’t have to, would you board a plane or subway right now? And, when a pandemic inevitably occurs (those in the know say it’s “when” not “if”), mass transportation will likely be discouraged.

In planning for a pandemic, an effort long underway by our government, worldwide mobility is a critical factor: The World Health Organization reported that H1N1 has already reached 17 nations, thanks to the ease with which we hop into planes, carrying on nasty viral baggage with us. So preparing for the worst — and hoping for the best — is recommended throughout the chain of command, including President Barack Obama, because if H1N1 doesn’t cause a pandemic now, another more virulent wave of the virus could strike later, or a new strain could rear its ugly head. Unfortunately, pandemic planning is something far too few organizations have adequately addressed.

I worked in the healthcare industry until a year ago and couldn’t find one company in the supply channel that had a comprehensive plan for a pandemic scenario, despite government guidance to do so — and despite common knowledge that being prepared is a key indicator of successful emergency response.

The government certainly seems prepared for a pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has conducted an effective prevention campaign for years: cough into the crook of your arm, not on your hands; or cough and sneeze into a tissue; if you or anyone in your household has symptoms, keep your germs at home; and wash your hands like crazy. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) produced a VIP webcast last week, reassuringly taking questions from the frightened public. We have national and state stockpiles of antiviral treatments for influenza. And, according to brand-spanking new HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, manufacturers of influenza vaccines and antivirals stand ready to ramp up development and production upon request.

However, suppose we have a severe pandemic and the folks responsible for distributing influenza vaccines and treatments, those who ship them, and the airports and trucking infrastructures through which they pass, find themselves with employee absentee rates approaching the 40 percent figure projected by the government — and without plans in place for maintaining essential operations. Then extend that scenario to all industries.

Oops.

This is why planning at the family level is necessary; we must prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Know where to go for accurate information — the CDC avoids hysteria and denial alike; be prepared to work from home if possible, to care for sick family members, to avoid mass transportation; and follow CDC planning guidelines for families. You don’t have to go nuts, but you can go shopping for extra necessities to keep on hand — just in case.

And remember: H1N1 is not a food-borne virus. So when the first conspiracy fruitloop accuses the Obama administration of infecting pigs to create a pandemic to distract us from the economy, help out a slandered industry and plan on natural pork for dinner.

(Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted from Kit-Bacon Gressitt's personal blog, Excuse Me, I'm Writing.)

(For another posting on the politics of flu, please see: "Texas, the Swine Flu & Secession.")

(The graphic is by Mike Licht from NotionsCapital.com via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. To see President Obama's remarks on the H1N1 flu virus which opened his recent press conference, and the entire press conference, please check below.)




















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1 comments:

Rick Rockwell said...

K-B…

I want you to know that I ride the Metro to work most days now in D.C. and that habit hasn’t altered because of the flu outbreak.

Yes, there is concern. And yes, many (myself included) are taking extra health precautions. (My wife reminds me to wash up after riding, if I forget.) I think you walk the steady line here: urging precaution but not edging into panic.

This is why many of us felt Joe “Mr. Train to D.C. Daily” Biden blew it with his response. Now, that he’s VP he doesn’t have to ride a train, and he seems happy to have abandoned it.

Unless the outbreak gets worse (and right now it looks like it may be waning) no one should abandon mass transit.

Now, planes that connect through Mexico City, well that may be another matter.

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