The importance of sound planning for the worst-case scenario of a pandemic flu, as morbid as it can be, has re-entered the public conscience following the emergence of the H1N1 flu virus last spring.
As local, state and federal government leaders braced for the renewal of school this fall expected to be a main source for any increase in seasonal and H1N1 flu transmission city officials here have also renewed their efforts, making sure work begun in 2005 is up to date for the needs of 2009.
Alexandria is probably far ahead of the game and lets just say were probably in the forefront, more than likely, than many of our local, neighboring jurisdictions, Mayor Bill Euille said Tuesday night at a town hall meeting on influenza held at the Charles Houston Recreation Center.
This is something that weve taken very seriously, he said.
Euille and leaders of the citys schools, public safety and health departments outlined the citys tactics to combat the dual-threat of seasonal flu and the H1N1 flu virus, also known as swine flu.
While the citys plans for an influenza outbreak are comprehensive and sobering with a 270-page report on its flu website detailing everything from maintaining critical city services with limited staff to taking care of increased deaths, its main message is keeping up personal hygiene through acts as simple as washing hands often, staying home when sick and coughing or sneezing into a sleeve.
When asked about the volatility of the H1N1 vaccine, Kaplowitz assured the audience sever allergic reactions are extremely rare and that very few serious side effects exist.
Officials have said there is no indication that the plans most alarming elements will need to be utilized any time soon but it is a necessary precaution for a worst-case scenario.
Dr. Lisa Kaplowitz, director of the citys health department, along with Dr. Kelly Woodward, operations chief for the department, clarified the differences between the two viruses and their vaccines, recommending that Alexandrians try to get vaccinated for both.
We do know that the vaccine is the single most powerful tool for preventing both the seasonal influenza and the H1N1 influenza and both the vaccines are very safe, Woodward said, responding to a question from the audience about the vaccines effectiveness.
Kaplowitz said that the H1N1 vaccine, fully tested and licensed with the FDA, was supposed to begin shipping in small doses by Wednesday, earlier than the federal government had said as recent as two weeks ago, with the bulk of the governments 195 million purchased doses to ship in greater numbers later this month.
The city began developing its plans for a pandemic outbreak of seasonal flu in 2005, and though the H1N1 strain this year is very similar to the more common influenza virus, Kaplowitz said the main difference has been its effect on young people.
Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman, addressing the fact that schools are traditionally expected to be a hub of flu transmission, said the citys schools are well-prepared for what we hope doesnt happen.
Sherman said the schools have supplied hand sanitizer to each elementary school classroom and that vaccines will be made available for all members of the school population who wish to have it.
What we can report to you so far in the school year is that weve only seen isolated cases of flu-like illnesses, Sherman said, adding that school closures would only occur if the illness is so widespread that we dont have the staff needed to take care of the students.
Inova Alexandria Hospital has been preparing for the potential patient surge that could accompany a pandemic, according to hospital CEO Christine Candio.
The hospital has reviewed its staffing plans in the event that large portions of the workforce are unable to come to work, revamped its visiting hours policy and also planned for additional sites to accommodate the surge, including a makeshift tent outside the emergency wing, Candio said.
Fire Chief Adam Thiel and Police Chief Earl Cook stressed the importance of the general public in preventing a pandemic with conscious hygiene and vaccinations.
Thiel said in the case of an emergency the citys plans are designed to work in tandem with those of other jurisdictions in the area to maintain civil services at the highest level possible.
When the H1N1 immunization doses become more widely available in late October or early November, Woodward said, the city will be able to hold mass vaccination clinics for a four-week period, free of charge. The vaccine will also be available through many doctors offices and pharmacies for a small fee.