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County well-prepared to deal with new flu strains

Hubbard County officials have been meeting daily to fight the flu war - and even attended a seminar on a pandemic flu epidemic well before Mexican flu cases were known.

And while the H1N1 swine flu virus appears to be waning in Mexico, there is fear in North America the virus could spend the summer in a dormancy period and mutate into something deadly by fall.

Vaccines are already incubating to prevent against such an occurrence, Public Health Director Chris Broeker told the Hubbard County board Wednesday. They're made out of chicken eggs.

County commissioner Dick Devine attended the pandemic seminar and came back with some jarring possibilities.

If a global disaster the severity of the "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 20 million to 40 million people worldwide, were to occur today, the region would need 6,000 hospital beds, he and Broeker told the board. They'd be lucky to cobble 2,000 together among all the regional healthcare facilities.

"We were told we'd need 5,000 ventilators," Devine said. "We have 29."

But Devine was even more sobered by the prospect of rationing scarce healthcare resources in the unlikely chance of a global epidemic.

"Therein is the real problem," he said. "Do you give the ventilator to the job holder who is productive or would you give it to a sick child?"

Both he and Broeker said they hope to never have to make such a choice. "You can have chaos pretty quickly," Devine said.

Broeker, who passed out complimentary hand sanitizer bottles to the five-member board, said health officials have conducted daily conference calls to pass along information on the quickly evolving virus.

"Are people really paying attention or has the media blown this all out of proportion?" questioned commissioner Cal Johannsen. He pointed out that there have been other swine flu viruses in past years, there was a bird flu scare last year and other public health threats. "How many times are we gonna cry wolf?"

Broeker defended early reporting that may have scared the public.

"We didn't know what we were dealing with," she said. "The information coming out of Mexico was changing daily. In one week's time we learned a lot. It wasn't as virulent or dangerous as they'd feared."

Health officials have recently backed away from mandatory school closings and quarantine periods, leaving those decisions to local officials to determine.

But concerns persist that the virus, a mutated group of overseas swine and avian influenza strains, could continue to mutate into a more deadly disease.

And even the seasonal flu that it now resembles kills 38,000 people annually.

The county, which is strapped for funds, doesn't have additional money allocated to spend on flu resources, so it must do what it can, board chair Lyle Robinson said.

Some of those measures include locating cots, which could supplement hospital beds, assembling a volunteer force because healthcare workers may become stricken or be needed at home, and addressing preventative measures such as hygiene and vaccinations.

Broeker said employers may be faced with questions regarding their workforces, and how much can be expected of employees who must care for sick family members. Caregivers of small children would likely stay home, Broeker suggested, leaving a volunteer force of citizens in the 50-year age group.

Innovis Clinic and St. Joseph's Area Health Services are also taking precautions, Broeker said. Patients coming in with a cough are immediately given a face mask and segregated from others in the clinic waiting room as a precaution, or seen immediately if possible.

But common sense may be the best weapon against the spread of any virus, flu or otherwise.

Broeker advises staying home if you're ill, washing your hands frequently, covering your coughs or sneezes and staying healthy.