Friday, August 25, 2006

Threat of avian flu prompts crisis plans

Threat of avian flu prompts crisis plans
Seminar for health care workers and area residents underscores need to prepare for pandemic

By AMBER VAN NATTEN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Friday, August 11, 2006

Messages like "Keep your germs to yourself. STAY HOME!" or "Did you ask about masks?" greeted Kathy Beers and Tina VanDerwerken on a recent visit to Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia.

The women -- Beers of Schenectady and VanDerwerken of Scotia -- attended a Schenectady County seminar on pandemic flu preparedness. And they weren't alone, more than 200 health care workers, volunteers and concerned citizens participated in the day-long sessions that covered everything from explaining what bird flu is to explaining how families can protect themselves.

"According to the World Health Organization and the Department of Health, we're overdue for a pandemic," said Glynnis Hunt, health education coordinator for the Schenectady County Health Department. "We feel it is a real concern and we're preparing for that."

Besides the seminar at Glen Sanders, the New York State Department of Health and the New York State Emergency Management Office also held a recent flu planning forum. In a separate event, Hometown Health Center in Schenectady brought experts and workers together to talk about worst-case scenarios and strategies to deal with them. And hospitals across the region have been running drills to test their plans and taking part in these county- and state-wide efforts.

"We feel that the more prepared people are now, the less chaotic the situation will be in the event of a pandemic," said Hunt.

The trigger of a pandemic anytime soon would most likely be avian influenza, or bird flu, which had claimed 134 lives worldwide by the end of July, according to health experts. According to the World Health Organization, a U.N. specialized health agency, more than half those that contract the disease die from it.

"I've been following the flu pandemic since it came out," said VanDerwerken, a stay-at-home mom. "I'm very interested personally in this. I'm very prepared though. I have enough food and water for six months."

Beers, a school nurse at Ballston Spa High School, said she, too, is concerned.

"People need to be informed. I feel very strongly about this," said Beers. "People are going to start to see things happen in the community a lot sooner than they might think."

In fact, the state has 60,000 flu treatments stockpiled and is purchasing more than a million anti-virals for recently infected people, according to Robert Kenny, the state health department's public affairs director. Of $29 million in the state budget for pandemic flu planning, most of it -- $23 million -- will go to medications. The rest goes to planning, equipment and supplies.

At the Glen Sanders planning session, three training seminars took place: one for health care professionals, one for volunteers and one for the community.

"We're only scraping the surface," said Dr. Russell Fricke, Schenectady County's public health commissioner. "There needs to be a broader discussion in this country."

Fricke specifically worried about broad-based financial planning.

"Businesses will have to interact with the government because what will parents or single parents do if they can't come to work for extended periods of time?" he said. "Will they still receive an income if they can't come to work because they're sick or their family is sick?"

That's partly where volunteers will come in. Health care agencies, like the county department, will need volunteers to help with child care, translation, inventory and delivering medicines quickly.

"We need a reserve of medical and non-medical volunteers to help," said Shelly Glock, Schenectady County's volunteer coordinator. "We want people to be trained, organized and ready in case of an emergency."

Anyone interested in volunteering can sign up online at or by phone at 386-2810.

"If a large amount of people become ill, the system will become overwhelmed," said Glock. "People may need to care for their family, their co-workers and their neighborhoods and we want to train them to do that before it happens."

At the planning sessions hosted by the state, media representatives were asked to talk through how vital and possibly life-saving information in the event of a pandemic would be disseminated.

"We want to plan ahead how the Department of Health will get information to the media and how the media should take that information and present it to the public," said Rachel Smith, a state environmental scientist.

While news outlets would still be relied on to pass along accurate and timely information, they would be facing similar problems with staff shortages and a lack of resources.

"If your delivery guy sneezes on a newspaper and then drops it on your front step, that could be a problem. Does he have bird flu? Do you have it now? Is that going to make you stop reading the paper?" said Mike Spain, the Times Union's deputy managing editor, who attended the forum. "As far as covering stories, our people are going to be on the front lines if anything happens, and that could mean exposure to the virus. These are things we have to think about."

At Hometown Health Center, which serves mostly low-income residents, center workers and experts ran a planning session, called a tabletop drill to strengthen plans and check weaknesses in its system.

Besides expressing concern over possible language barriers among the center's employees and its multilingual community, the staff noted it would need backup in case workers grew ill. If nothing else, they noted, patients with chronic conditions like diabetes or AIDS would need to keep their appointments.

"There's a lot of holes between what's on paper and what we really have to do," said John Silva, the center's CEO.

Organizing and leading the center's drill was Dr. Jonathan Weinstein, emergency preparedness director for the Community Health Care Association of New York State, a nonprofit public advocacy association.

Weinstein suggested the center establish an extra fund for emergencies. In a pandemic, patients without health care or resources still would need to be treated. That and overtime worked by staff members would create a financial burden that health centers would need to prepare for.

Other than those issues, the staff said it felt reassured by the session.

"We've attended several flu presentations and we have an excellent clinical staff. I think we would be more ready than most places," said Angella Timothy, the center's executive vice president.

As for hospitals in the Capital Region, they have participated in such county- and state-wide sessions and continue with other efforts.

"Disasters affect more than just one hospital," said Scott Heller, director of the regional resource center for emergency and disaster preparedness in Albany. He works out of Albany Medical Center Hospital. "It's not just an Albany Med issue or a St. Peter's Hospital issue. It will be a problem for every health care facility in the region."

According to Paul Segovis, emergency preparedness coordinator at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, his hospital has coordinated efforts with the county, and staff recently participated in a drill to test their emergency plan.

"Will things go perfectly? No. We can't anticipate every scenario, but we have the requirements in place to respond to any emergency that comes our way," said Segovis. "We're keeping an eye on avian flu and being aware of it, but we're also going to be ready. At this point we hope it never happens, but if it does, we'll be ready."

No plan could ever be final, as every organization tweaks its effort with new information and discussions, but Heller said, "As a whole I think we're a lot better than we were three or five years ago. Our plans are constantly changing and evolving anytime something occurs with the potential to affect us locally. We've really come a long way."

Amber Van Natten, a Times Union intern, is a SUNY Purchase sophomore. She can be reached at 454-5420 or by e-mail at

How to be prepared

Dr. Jonathan Weinstein, emergency preparedness director for the Community Health Care Association of New York State, offered these tips for how people can prepare themselves and their families before an emergency:

Have a family emergency plan. If you work and have young children, arrange now for them to stay with a neighbor, friend or family member in case of an emergency. Discuss with your family what you would do and how you would contact each other in different emergency situations.

Have basic supplies in your home to last for several days such as water (one gallon per person per day); nonperishable food; a battery-operated radio; a flashlight; blankets and a first aid kit containing over-the-counter medications for fever, pain and minor stomach problems; anti-bacterial ointments; and an extra supply of any prescription medication especially insulin or asthma inhalers.

Practice hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. Wash your hands frequently with hot water and anti-bacterial soap. Wash hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing or cough and sneeze into the crook of your arm to avoid spreading germs. If you have flu-like symptoms or are in contact with someone with flu-like symptoms, wear a mask.

Go Online to the American Red Cross ( or the Centers for Disease Control ( to get more information on how you can prepare your family for an emergency.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2006, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.


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