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Pandemic flu preparations taking shape at area hospitals

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  • Pandemic flu preparations taking shape at area hospitals

    Pandemic flu preparations taking shape at area hospitals

    With concerns growing across the globe that the Avian Flu might lead to a widespread, and possibly deadly, influenza pandemic, local hospital officials are working to prepare for what could be the worst outbreak of disease in the United States since the Hong Kong Flu killed 34,000 Americans in 1968 and 1969.
    According to local hospital executives, preparations for a potential pandemic flu have been under way for months. Such a flu could stem from either a mutation of a viral strain currently circulating here or from a mutation to the Avian flu that allows it to be transmitted easily among humans.

    Hospital officials agree that although an outbreak as widespread as earlier flu pandemics might never occur, they are following local and national directives to have a plan ready in case a mutation to a current virus circulating in the United States is detected or strains of the Avian flu, also known as the bird flu, travel to this country.

    Some health care workers 'very concerned'

    So far, the Avian strain -- scientifically known as H5N1 virus -- has been found in Asia, Africa and parts of eastern Europe. The virus spreads primarily from birds and poultry to humans, and only a few cases have been reported involving human-to-human transmission.
    As of May 23, 218 cases had been reported worldwide during the past four years, and 124 deaths have resulted from the disease, according to information from the World Health Organization. Of those, 74 cases were reported this year, with 48 deaths.
    The Avian flu virus "still has some components of it that make us very concerned," said Dr. Dan Varga, chief medical officer for Norton Healthcare Inc.
    "It is highly contagious among birds, and there clearly are many cases already that have shown bird to human transmitability. ... That is why we are not going to just sit back and hope this thing never transmits easily from human to human."
    According to a draft preparedness and response plan created by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services, experts believe it would take only one to six months from the time a human-transmitted form of the virus is detected in the United States for it to spread across the country, leaving a short window for hospitals to make preparations.
    Both Varga and Cheryl Stout, nursing director for Baptist Hospital East, said their organizations are updating and preparing disaster plans to deal with a possible pandemic flu based on a worst-case scenario.
    Jeff Polson, director of public relations and advertising for Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare Inc., said the company's health care facilities also are updating their disaster plan, but officials could not be reached to provide additional details about the company's plan prior to Business First's press deadline.

    Potential loss of infrastructure adds to concerns about flu outbreak

    Varga said disasters such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina have served as lessons about how health care organizations are affected by widespread disasters that extend beyond typical health care crises.

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    • monitoring infection data to identify unusually high numbers of cases of flu or other communicable diseases;
    • preparing plans to staff their facilities if large numbers of health care workers get sick;
    • and gathering additional supplies to meet the additional patient load.
    The additional supplies include masks and gowns as well as personal respirators needed to filter highly contagious diseases.
    She declined to estimate how much additional inventory is being added.

    Varga said Norton's five hospitals in Louisville are focusing on planning rather than gathering supplies because "right now, we just don't know what this thing will look like" if it develops.
    "It doesn't just come down to drugs and supplies," he said. "I think we clearly have several layers of preparedness essentially that have to be built. ... The question first and foremost is, 'how do we take care of patients who get sick?' "