Island officials ready Vashon for the H1N1 flu pandemic

With fall approaching and the H1N1 virus spreading, several Islanders are working to make sure Vashon is as ready as possible to face a flu season health officials believe will be twice as bad as a typical one.

While initial reports show most people are not growing terribly sick from the H1N1 virus, health officials note that large numbers of people will likely be made ill from the virus — some severely so — and strongly encourage individuals, families and businesses to prepare for the coming challenges.

“Flu is not a trivial disease,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, the chief of Communicable Diseases, Epidemiology and Immunology Section for Public Health, Seattle-King County. “This is not a mild flu. It is a mild pandemic flu.”

Indeed, each year in the United States typical flu seasons are bad enough: 200,000 people are hospitalized with complications from the flu, and 36,000 people die. With considerably larger numbers of people expected to get the flu this season, more people, inevitably, will develop serious complications because of it. And as the flu is expected to affect large numbers of school-age children and young adults, this flu will be more visible to communities as a whole, Duchin said.

With reports of the flu spreading, it is important that people take steps to prevent it now. Though the virus is new, the strategies to stay as healthy as possible are what parents have been teaching for years: Wash your hands. Cover your mouth with a sleeve or a tissue when you cough and sneeze. Stay home when you are sick.

When the flu comes calling, community members should remain calm, Duchin said.

“People should not panic and flood the health system,” he said. “Most people will have mild, uncomplicated illnesses.”

Treatment is not recommended for this virus unless patients develop complications or have a chronic illness, such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma. When in doubt, patients should call their doctor, Duchin said.

On Vashon, the three main health clinics — Vashon Health Center, Vashon Family Practice and Vashon Plaza Medical Clinic — have an eye on the challenges that might be coming their way.

“We are as ready as anybody can be,” said Rita Cannell, clinic manager of Vashon Health Center, the largest clinic on the Island.

The clinic has stocked up on masks and hand sanitizer, Cannell said. If the flu hits hard, she said, all staff will wear masks throughout the day, and all patients will be asked to wear them as well, regardless of what they are being seen for.

Cannell added that she had a nightmare in which she went to work and found the waiting room full of ill patients and so many staff out sick that only she and two or three doctors were there to help.

That scenario is unlikely to come to pass, however, since the clinic is part of the Highline Medical Group, which will move staff if needed to assist on Vashon, she said.

Vashon’s medical clinics are providing seasonal flu vaccines this month to patients who want them and plan to offer the H1N1 vaccine once it is available.

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR), also an intregal part of Vashon’s health care system, is prepared to care for seriously ill flu sufferers, said Chief Hank Lipe.

The agency has stocked up on protective equipment for both staff and volunteers. When the H1N1 virus first appeared last spring, public health officials told responders to be prepared for 25 to 35 percent of its workers to be out with the flu — a serious problem for a department the size of Vashon’s.

“When you’re infectious, you can’t come to work,” Lipe said.

Fire district staff are paying attention to sanitation: washing their hands often and cleaning desks and keyboards, where the virus — spread in droplets when an infected person coughs and sneezes — can live.

Across the country, people often go to work when they are sick, and Lipe said he has been one of the worst offenders. But no more, he said. Staying home when sick is now considered essential.

“That’s the only way we can manage the spread of this better than we have in the past,” he said.

VashonBePrepared (VBP), best known for its work on earthquake preparedness, is also helping Vashon prepare for the flu. A role of the organization is to link people together so the community’s various elements are coordinated in the event of an emergency. To that end, a VBP representative has attended meetings with members of the health center, the school district, VIFR and the volunteer Medical Reserve Corps, said Rick Wallace, an active VBP volunteer.

The agency has plans to deal with a big contagion, should it occur, as well as assisting in public education, prevention and treatment for the flu. With the focus now on public education, VashonBePrepared has considerable information about the flu on its Web site as well as links to other credible sites, Wallace said.

Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps, a group of volunteers credentialed by the county public health department to support the community in a medical emergency, are working to determine how they can bolster some of the existing resources.

Some of the volunteers will soon go into the schools to teach effective hand washing, according to Georgia Galus, an RN and one of the coordinators of the group, while other volunteers will attend a vaccination refresher course to assist the clinics if need be. The group is also considering other options for helping Islanders prepare for the flu — such as establishing “Flu Buddies,” friends and neighbors checking in on one another.

“People who live alone or are high risk could be in trouble easily,” Galus said.

At Vashon’s public schools, preparation is underway to help employees and families weather whatever this year might bring, said Donna Donnelly, assistant to the superintendent and the coordinator of emergency preparedness for the district.

Their first step took place was over the summer, when poorly working faucets in several bathroom sinks were retrofitted to provide a good stream of water, Donnelly said. School officials also changed the recess-lunch configuration, putting lunch first so that teachers could more easily supervise kids to ensure they’re washing their hands before they eat.

Each week, district officials have a conference call with public health officials and other schools in the area to keep abreast of the latest information and compare notes, she noted.

But Donnelly doesn’t expect the situation to be like last spring’s, when several schools closed.

“Our objective is to keep the schools open,” she said.

The schools are, however, expecting high rates of absences and will report those to public health weekly. Students, as well as adults, are being asked to stay home until 24 hours after their fever has gone — the time when they are most infectious.

If a a child shows symptoms of potential flu at school, he or she will be sent home, Donnelly said. This means parents must be sure to have updated emergency information filed at school and back up plans for child care, if necessary.

The school is also looking at ways to provide instruction in the event of closure — something that would only happen if too many staff were out sick to keep the doors open. One likely avenue would be the Internet, Donnelly said.

The good news, she noted, is that students’ absences are predicted to last only three to seven days if they get the flu, not two weeks as was the case last spring.

The district’s Web site has information for families with children at the schools, and the site is updated to be accurate, Donnelly said.

Good information is key, according to Galus of the Medical Reserve Corps, especially since there is so much misinformation around. She also stressed that the coming months are nothing to fear.

“We have an opportunity to take stock of the situation, to plan for it and to learn,” she said.

— This article is the first of two about the flu. Next week’s article will include information about the H1N1 vaccine.

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