Fairfax, Va. Report: Severe Bird Flu Would Affect One-Third, Kill 700

September 18, 2006

A bird flu pandemic would kill nearly 700 people in Virginia’s Fairfax County, forcing hospitals, nursing homes and other makeshift medical centers to set up temporary morgues and stockpile body bags to handle the deaths, according to a new report.

“Life as you see it today will not be the same,” Fairfax health director Gloria Addo-Ayensu said in response to a 112-page primer on how the Washington area’s largest local government would respond to such an outbreak.

Addo-Ayensu and other emergency management officials say Fairfax is the region’s first local government to issue a comprehensive report on pandemic flu preparations.

The report comes amid fears that avian influenza, which is spreading worldwide in poultry and has infected more than 230 people, could mutate into a virulent strain that could spread widely from person to person, killing millions worldwide.

Although the Bush administration has released a federal plan and committed tens of millions of dollars to anticipate a crisis, the details of how to respond are left to state and local governments.

The Fairfax report presents a grim scene. A severe outbreak of bird flu would infect nearly a third of the county’s population, sending thousands to local hospitals. As much as 40 percent of the county’s work force would be out of commission.

To prepare for such a scenario, the county is giving government officials, infectious disease specialists, emergency planners and first responders explicit instructions on what to do if people get sick.

“We have to look at the scenarios that are the worst-case, and look at how we would deal with them,” said C. Douglas Bass, Fairfax County’s emergency management director.

The county would track individual infections through reporting by local doctors and hospitals. Sites would be set up to distribute a potential vaccine or medicine, and sick people could be forced into quarantine.

Many county employees would work from home, and hundreds could be diverted from their jobs in libraries, parks and other “nonessential” agencies to help with the emergency response.

Other people would be ordered to stay home, steering clear of trains, buses, malls and other places where they would come into close contact with others.

The county’s goal is to minimize the transmission of a highly contagious virus while keeping the county government of 11,000 employees running, albeit with diminished services.

The response could be particularly challenging in a county of more than 1 million people, thousands of whom do not speak English. As many as 51,000 of those infected would be low-income residents without regular access to medical care, the response plan says.

“Trying to do mass vaccinations, for example, would be a huge challenge,” county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said. “We are so big that we can’t just say, ‘Everybody show up at one place.”‘

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