Hurricanes Provide Florida with Practice for Handling Possible Pandemic

By | December 19, 2006

Hurricanes and flu outbreaks wouldn’t seem to have much in common. But Florida officials say that if a global outbreak of influenza emerges, sickening millions, many of the lessons learned responding to storms would help them deal with the pandemic.

Both events temporarily shut down society, just in a different way. Hurricanes wreak havoc on the infrastructure — the electricity, water, access to gasoline — that is taken for granted.

A flu pandemic would take out people who make society operate, such as police officers, firefighters, teachers and private sector workers, and would limit travel, preventing even well people from getting to work, school and stores. State health officials say a pandemic could sicken more than 6 million people in Florida — a third of the population — and might kill 128,000.

But Florida emergency officials say they have learned that if they do drills, where everyone practices their responsibilities, the real event will go smoother. State emergency officials have done drills for pandemic flu response in nearly every county and plan more once they get more money from the federal government.

One aspect the state has drilled: getting drugs distributed quickly.

“Our ability to provide mass inoculations to our population during a crisis has been successfully tested,” the state Department of Health said in a recent report on flu readiness.

Emergency planners here also have learned in multiple hurricanes that the private sector can be more critical than the government. After a storm hits, people need grocery stores and restaurants open until homes get their power back.

That’s a lesson that translates to flu preparedness too, said Doc Kokol, a spokesman for the Department of Health, which would lead the pandemic response. If companies that ill people depend on _ such as package deliverers and pharmacies _ plan for massive shortages of workers, the crisis could be lessened. Officials have been holding meetings with large employers, imploring them to think about the prospect.

One thing the state hasn’t done yet is massively stockpile antiviral drugs like Tamiflu that could help slow the disease’s spread.

The Department of Health has recommended that the state do that _ but it needs legislators to pony up money. This past year, Gov. Jeb Bush asked lawmakers to spend about $33 million for antiviral stockpiling, but the Legislature didn’t go along. Health officials say they’ll try again in the coming year.

The state has received $12.1 million from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for general pandemic preparations, including stockpiling some Tamiflu.

Stockpiling a preventive vaccine isn’t an option, because drug companies can’t make a vaccine for a particular strain of influenza until they know its properties.

Health officials are also planning to use some of the agency’s discretionary budget to stockpile surgical gloves, masks and other medical supplies that might be needed. So far, though, the material hasn’t been purchased as officials ponder such questions as where to store it.

“We’re still working on logistics,” said Rhonda White, the director of Florida’s Office of Public Health Preparedness.

Florida officials note the state has some particular difficulties that may make it exceptionally vulnerable to a pandemic. As a major tourist destination, the state has a large numbers of visitors coming and going.

If state officials won’t say if they have a plan for keeping tourists out in the event of a pandemic. In a state that relies so heavily on tourists, hardly anyone wants to touch the question of whether the state or federal government might restrict travel.

There would likely be screening for infected people and possibly some quarantines, but closing the state off could make the situation worse by creating economic problems, U.S. Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Alfonso Martinez-Fonts said earlier this year.

“The plan is not to shut the borders, that’s the last thing we want to do,” Martinez-Fonts said during a pandemic flu summit with state, local and federal officials in Tallahassee.

“Certain interventions, such as mandatory travel restrictions or cordon … around entire communities, are not recommended because they seem infeasible under any foreseeable circumstance,” the state’s official Pandemic Flu Response plan says.

Another thing officials are trying to hammer out _ when should schools close and who should decide?

State officials would likely leave it up to local school boards, with input from state experts, but the governor also has the authority to order schools closed.

“We are working very closely with the Department of Education to develop joint guidelines: What are the triggers? Where it would make sense to make that decision?” White said.

Several county and local governments have their own plans. Most deal with how the government workers themselves would deal with a flu outbreak, and how they might help reduce the spread of the disease.

For example, Santa Rosa County, in the Panhandle, might require county workers who handle money or paper work to wear gloves when doing so, according to its emergency plan.

The Florida Bar notes that one out of three judges, attorneys, clerks, deputies and administrators “will not be available due to illness or death.”

The state courts’ plan for dealing with widespread flu includes being able to carry out essential duties _ including trials _ by videoconference or teleconference. Local court systems are being urged to upgrade their technology to permit that, and the Office of State Courts Administrators says it believes all court proceedings could be legally done by video.


On the Net:

Florida’s Pandemic flu plan:

Court system plan:

U.S. government pandemic info:

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