Model plan on bird flu presented at summit

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FARMINGTON – Bird flu might arrive in Maine much sooner than most of us think, and the state is looking to Franklin County as a role model in preparing for a pandemic.

Franklin Memorial unveiled its plan Wednesday, in an event billed as the “Franklin Community Health Network Pandemic Preparedness Summit,” where representatives from the Maine State Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and hospital personnel addressed nearly 50 people from around the county and the state to urge health organizations, towns, school districts and others to begin planning for a possible H5N1 pandemic.

FMH President Richard Batt called the summit, “a solid start, but only a start.” People all over Maine need to start preparing for the worst-case scenario, he said – and that means getting ready for a pandemic that could infect up to 50 percent of the population and kill between 2.5 million and 100 million people worldwide.

The hospital president compared a possible pandemic with Hurricane Katrina, saying people in New Orleans were aware of the threat posed to the city’s levee system in Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, but failed to prepare out “because they’re like us – it’s human nature to think not me, not now,” Batt said. Now faced with the possibility of a bird flu pandemic, it would be grossly inappropriate to fail to plan for the worst-case scenario, he said.

The health network’s plan includes measures from providing day care for staff, to posting extra security at medical buildings and locking away valuable medications, to providing mental health services, to triaging patients, to create a bird flu hot line and take-home flu kits for people who cannot be admitted to the hospital.

Randy Gauvin, the network’s emergency preparedness coordinator, said the Franklin Community Health Network has already started ordering emergency preparedness materials – like extra gloves and masks – and he added the network is lucky its administrators are so willing to spend a little extra money to ensure preparedness.

The difference between pandemic influenza and other emergencies is that by nature, pandemics affect a huge percentage of the population. In a normal emergency, even if a whole state is affected, people can rely on help from others – doctors and nurses being flown in, federal financial aid, trucks arriving with clean water, or fuel, or food – whatever is needed, Batt said. But when that help did not arrive for just a few days after Hurricane Katrina, the people left in New Orleans were helpless. In a pandemic, which might last six months or more, no help would ever come from outside. “FEMA would never come,” Batt said.

“The worry is, in some small rural community, a child will become infected, and before he dies, the bug mutates. The kid coughs, and the parents get it. And if that happens” said Batt, describing a scenario remarkably like the beginning of a number of horror movies released in recent years.

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