By Tony Graf, Staff Writer (Suburban Chicago News)
August 13, 2006

Although there have been no reported cases of the fatal bird flu virus in the United States, concerns about that possibility have caused some officials in Will County to ponder the issue.

What if the virus came here, after having killed at least 132 people in other countries?

What if there was a pandemic ? a global disease outbreak ? that disrupted society's important functions?

How could local schools and other public buildings be used to help people? Dr. Sonal Shah of the DuPage Medical Group left a recent Plainfield Chamber of Commerce lunch group speechless when she asked who in the community was doing any planning.

The answer, is Will County.

"This (discussion) is all planning. We have no indication that any threat is imminent," said John Cicero, assistant executive director of the county health department. "It's probably prudent to begin planning, and we're doing that.?

No bird flu case has been documented in the United States, but Cicero said Will County has this early strategy:
? Write a pandemic flu plan;
? Depict possible flu scenarios during "table-top exercises" involving leaders from key agencies. Employ a consultant to conduct these "what-if" scenarios and to facilitate discussions;
? Launch a public education campaign, using mass mailings to inform county residents on what pandemic flu means.

On July 18, the county held a daylong training session.

"We went through pandemic training at the health department. There's quite a bit of planning going on with that whole issue of a pandemic," said Dave Levek, assistant regional superintendent of schools for Will County.

The session involved the county's health, emergency management, animal control and highway departments, and the offices of the state's attorney, coroner and sheriff. Levek and Superintendent Rich Duran represented the county's regional office of education.

Also participating were representatives from Joliet's two hospitals ? Silver Cross and Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center, Cicero said.

Another session is scheduled for Aug. 25, but at this point, "we're in the very preliminary stages of this," Cicero said.

Will County is using a $112,000 state grant to plan for a flu crisis response. The grant is originally federal money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The money comes through the state Department of Public Health to local health departments.

Before Will County officials took over the planning, representatives of Homer School District 33-C began discussing the issue.

Homer Superintendent Bill Young and his colleagues pictured some difficult scenarios involving the virus, for instance:
? Dealing with large-scale cancellation of classes;
? Using schools for distributing medicine, and for other public services;
? Operating despite large amounts of sick-leave time among employees; and
? Continuing instruction of students even if they had to stay home.
"There would be an ongoing expectation that we could still provide an education for the children," Young said.

"Schools are required to have an emergency plan in place," Levek said, referring to the state's School Safety Drill Act.

Part of the act includes review of emergency and crisis response plans. This would cover events such as tornadoes and other severe weather, fire, terrorism, nuclear disaster or the sudden illness or death of a student.

A flu pandemic would be covered under the act, Levek said.

And the federal government is urging schools nationwide to prepare for a potential flu emergency.

"Local education agencies play an integral role in protecting the health and safety of their districts' staff, students and their families," reads a statement on the pandemic flu Web site.

Later in the year, the county plans to begin pandemic training for schools ? primary, secondary and college.

"Colleges are places where you have dormitories and close contact of individuals. Those are key," Cicero said. "Those folks should be trained and have to understand the plan as well."

Source: www.suburbanchicagonews.com/heraldnews/top/4_1_JO13_VIRUS_S10813.htm