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Alabama seminar: PANDEMIC: Not matter of if, but when

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  • Alabama seminar: PANDEMIC: Not matter of if, but when


    PANDEMIC: Not matter of if, but when
    Seminar informs local authorities about emergency preparations

    Saturday, April 19, 2008
    Staff Reporter

    About 168 people could die each day for eight straight weeks if a flu pandemic -- similar to that of the infamous Spanish Flu in 1918 -- struck Alabama, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

    "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," was the echo of some of the speakers at the state agency's flu pandemic emergency preparedness meeting this week in Mobile. The daylong seminar, held on the Brookley Complex alongside Mobile Bay, is part of a series of 11 conferences across the state aimed at providing instructions for pandemic readiness and continuing education courses for nurses, social workers, paramedics, and law enforcement.

    In 1918, the Spanish Flu, the most destructive pandemic in recorded history, killed 500,000 in the U.S. and millions more around the world. Today that could mean up to one-third of the population could fall ill, and 1.9 million people in the U.S. could die, The Associated Press has reported. In recent years, President Bush's administration has called on everyone to prepare for the next flu outbreak.

    Many of those preparations are similar to those made for natural disasters such as hurricanes, speakers told a room full of people at the Brookley Convention Center ballroom.

    Officials will open local emergency operations centers and the governor and other high-ranking state officials will likely stand by in the bunker in Clanton, Ala., said David Coggins, a regional coordinator for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

    But there will be some critical differences.

    To demonstrate, Crowley showed a picture of the Mobile County EMA bunker with former Mayor Mike Dow, Fire Chief Steve Dean and other local officials crowded around the meeting table, some alertly holding coffee while staring at the projector screen.

    "There may be only two people in this picture," Coggins said. The rest would be too sick to help.

    Lt. Joseph McClellan of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security said that law enforcement agencies and other first responders have to prepare to lose about half their work force because they will either be sick or caring for dying relatives.

    It's unclear if crime will increase, but it certainly won't decline, he said.

    "Bad people will take advantage of good people during bad times," McClellan said.

    Security will need to be provided for mass burial sites, hospitals and pharmacies as fear and chaos could take hold of the community, McClellan said. Officers will have to reprioritize their calls; burglaries and robberies may not be on the top of the list.

    While looking over various agencies' plans, McClellan said he's found that too many call for support from Alabama State Troopers.

    "There aren't enough state troopers to fill those spots," he said. Those plans need to be changed, he said.

    Typically in natural disasters, other states and agencies may help, but in a flu pandemic those offers may not be extended for fear of spreading the infection further, Coggins said.

    "Don't expect Baldwin County to come over and do your day-to-day operations," Coggins said.

    Elmer Sellers, the assistant administrator for University of South Alabama Medical Center, said in the event of the pandemic barricades will go up at the facility's entrances to keep people who don't need to be there from entering the hospital and exposing themselves to germs.

    A triage center will be set up outside complete with x-ray machines, so health workers can assess whether patients need to be hospitalized.

    The hospital has one refrigerator truck ready to keep bodies once the morgue fills up, he said. "We are going to have a lot of fatalities," Sellers said.

    While there will be a need for mass burial that doesn't mean people's religious and cultural beliefs shouldn't be taken into account, Joseph Ellington III told the crowd.

    "Individual burials may not be possible," Ellington said. "This will cause stress and intensify grief."

    Religious leaders will need to prepare for such occasions, especially if ministers are too sick to tend to their congregations.

    "An ounce of preparedness is better than a pound of panic," Ellington said. "These will be very emotional times."

    The Alabama Department of Health says a two-step process can kill the flu virus:

    Clean: Use a household detergent, like dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent or hand soap to wipe surfaces such as desks, phones, food preparations area, door knobs, faucets and other frequently used items.

    Sterilize. Use household bleach, dilute a cm TQTR cup of bleach into one gallon of water or using rubbing alcohol with 70 percent isopropyl or 60 percent ethyl alcohol. Products with lower alcohol concentrations will not work. Disinfect material and areas contaminated by flu virus. Follow label warnings. When using bleach, remember to work in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves. Do not inhale. Keep bleach and alcohol away from heat sources, children and pets.