County readies plan in case bird flu strikes


Oxford County is in the middle of planning for the possibility of an avian flu pandemic, and the emphasis is on individual preparedness and staying healthy, county Emergency Management Agency Director Scott Parker said.

All 16 counties have been asked to have contingency plans in place by Aug. 1. Oxford County EMA held its first strategizing session with organizations last week, and it has others scheduled in Rumford and Paris in the next few weeks. Businesses, first responders, school officials, funeral directors, veterinarians, health personnel and others are involved.

The avian flu virus, known as H5N1, has killed 122 people since 2003 in nine countries and infected 216. The virus typically jumps from poultry to people, especially those handling birds. People’s fear about the flu stems from the concern that it could start spreading from human to human, and because it is so deadly and people have no protection against the virus, it could become a devastating scourge.

Parker emphasized that the most important key to the county plan is personal preparedness and staying healthy.

Olan Johnston, director of preparedness for Maine’s Emergency Management Association, agreed.

“One of the things we’re pushing is personal preparedness,” he said. “If you’re not prepared as a person, you’re not going to be any good to your employer. It’s really an inclusive dynamic, and it starts with you and me.”

Parker said the county’s plan will help prepare the region not only for a possible avian flu outbreak, but also for other illnesses, such as another case of bad flu or even tuberculosis.

“Businesses need to have plans,” he said. “How are they going to operate at a reduced staff if that came to pass? What precautions are they going to take with their staff, are they going to sit with a surgical mask and gloves? I’m laying out options that they should consider.”

Fire departments, police departments, grocery stores all have to decide how to continue operating at a reduced staff, with fewer resources available, if suddenly many people are felled by the virus.

This inclusiveness stretches throughout the community, including churches, which have lots of volunteers readily available.

“Church groups are famous for being able to feed large quantities of people,” Johnston said. “They know their local neighborhoods. They can be out doing stuff and checking on their neighbors.”

It is important that agencies at the local and state level are prepared in the event that a pandemic rips across this region, Johnston said, because federal help will be virtually nonexistent.

“They’ll have limited resources and manpower, and resources get pushed to more urban areas, so Maine is planning on, if it’s a really bad event like that . . . that we will deal with it as best we can within our borders,” Johnston said.