FARMINGTON – Don’t panic – at least not yet. But do start getting prepared.
That is the message the Franklin Community Health Network wants you – and everybody else in this area – to take home from a Pandemic Influenza Summit happening later this month.
At a Tuesday press briefing to unveil the network’s Pandemic Flu Preparedness Plan, Randy Gauvin, the network’s emergency preparedness coordinator, said the plan is one of the first, if not the first, in Maine, and is aimed at giving the hospital and other local health care providers a blueprint to follow “in the unlikely event” the H5N1 bird flu virus reaches pandemic proportions in Maine.
Since December 2003, the “avian flu” virus has been found in birds in more than 40 countries – among them European nations normally considered safe for travel like Denmark, France, Italy and Sweden. And as of Monday, 190 people had become infected. Of those, 108 of them had died.
But according to hospital President Richard Batt, the disease cannot spread quickly enough to create a pandemic – a global epidemic – in its current form. As it is now, H5N1 is only transmitted from contact, usually with infected birds, although occasionally with infected people. The real danger, he says, is if a person with a regular flu contracts H5N1 from a bird and the disease mutates, combining the lethal characteristics of bird flu with the easy transmission of regular seasonal influenza.
In Tuesday’s presentation, Gauvin presented a preparedness plan for how the Franklin Community Heath Network could deal with a bird flu outbreak if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s worst-case scenario predictions do come about.
If the Centers for Disease Control predictions are accurate, a pandemic could infect up to 200 million people in the United States – killing up to 500,000. Nine-hundred of those predicted deaths would occur in Maine, Gauvin said. If H5N1 does spread in Maine, Franklin Memorial Hospital will probably be inundated with folks seeking medical attention. Where there are currently a little more than 30 emergency room visits a day, Gauvin said, during a flu pandemic the numbers could top 200 a day, with half of those visiting seeking medical attention for anxiety or misread symptoms, and half for real cases of the flu.
In that event, Gauvin said, the hospital will need to be especially careful to make sure its doctors and other staff are well protected with masks, gowns, gloves, and the like – and have daycare for their children – so they can come to work without undue danger of getting sick themselves.
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. Gauvin 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.
Community leaders are invited to attend a summit on April 26 at FMH, to learn more about the health network’s plan and discuss other ideas for preparedness. Anyone interested in learning more about H5N1 can go to www.mainebirdflu.com.