County officials meet to discuss possible H1N1 emergency plans

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As the H1N1 virus continues to spread around the world, health officials here in Switzerland County met together on Tuesday morning to discuss various options on how to handle the pandemic should large numbers of county resident become sick.

Chris See, Switzerland County Health and Safety Coordinator, said that at a recent meeting involving state health officials, it was discussed how counties can prepare for the fall, noting that there are “lots of unknowns out there” as to how the virus will spread – if at all.

He said that currently there have been 291 confirmed cases in Indiana, with four deaths attributed to the H1N1 virus. State health officials said that if the virus rises to higher pandemic levels, the state could see 50,000 cases with 5,000 of those severe enough to require hospitalization – and as many as 353 deaths.

“They’re calling this the first wave,” Chris See told those in attendance. “Right now it’s hot and humid, but viruses like cool and dry, so we could see an increase in cases as fall comes.”

Chris See said that he is getting updates daily from the CDC, and that he is working with school superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Jones about the opening of school for the year – which comes next week. He said that he has prepared a letter for all parents and staff members about the H1N1 virus, and said that he hopes that school custodians will take extra measures to wipe down handrails and door knobs; and will also ask that teachers wipe down things like computer keyboards after each class. He also hopes that hand sanitizer can be placed in each classroom.

The county will also take preventative measures, placing hand sanitizer dispensers at each entrance to the county courthouse and also at the entrances of other public buildings. Signs will also be placed nearby encouraging visitors and workers entering the building to use the sanitizer stations.

Chris See again encouraged everyone to spread the word that good hygiene and prevention are the best line of defense against the spread of the disease; and that everyone needs to take precautions such as regular hand washing, even at home.

Health officials are also looking at ways of helping prevent the spread of the virus as people come into and leave the county, particularly at businesses such as Belterra Casino Resort and Spa and companies that have visitors from outside of the county on a regular basis.

It was noted that precautions that Switzerland County are taking are not any different than precautions that other communities are taking around the country, so it is hoped that everyone working together will keep the spread of the virus contained.

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But what happens if the virus does rise above current levels?

Chris See said that viruses have “levels”, just like hurricane classifications. Currently the H1N1 virus is classified as a “Pandemic”, but then there are levels of pandemic, going up to Level Five. Should the pandemic get to a Level Five, Chris See said that health officials have the authority to close public and private buildings in order to contain the spread of the virus.

He also said that a vaccine is currently being worked on and is being tested, but there is no timeline for when the vaccine will be released for use.

But when it does, Switzerland County health officials have a plan.

Chris See said that the primary objective if or when the vaccine is made available here in Switzerland County will be schools and students – vaccinating as many school children as possible with parents’ consent. Currently the vaccine being tested involves two shots, with the second coming approximately three weeks after the first.

He said that one hurdle for the schools – and for the county in general as the vaccine becomes more available – will be that the state wants information on those receiving the vaccination within 48 hours of them receiving the first shot. With parent permission, student information already in the school’s database could be converted, but Chris See noted that it is estimated that it will take about five minutes to log in a person’s information – and with 10,000 county residents, that will be a challenge in itself.

Once the vaccine becomes generally available – health officials are saying that there will be “high risk” groups that will be given priority – Chris See said that ideally the best situation will be for people to come to the Switzerland County Health Department and get their shots.

But if the vaccine supply is plentiful and there is a rush for the shots, health officials say that it has been discussed that the Jefferson-Craig firehouse could become a “point of dispersal”; and the county would ask nurses from Swiss Villa, nurses from the schools, and other medical volunteers here in the county to help with the vaccinations – and local businesses may be asked to allow an employee to come and help with the information data entry.

“If we get to that point, we’re going to ask each business and organization to consider what are the essential functions of your agency,” Chris See said. “What can you do? What can wait?”

Chris See said that the possibility exists that public events could be closed, as well as churches and other places where groups of people gather.

Again, these are all just possibilities that are being “walked through” in the event that something needs to be done. Nothing at the current time has changed.

Another avenue that county health officials are working toward is continuing to provide information to the public as quickly as possible. Chris See said that a special area on the Vevay Newspapers website (www.vevaynewspapers.com) has been established to provide daily updates if needed; and public information commercials will also be running on 95.9 Froggy radio.

“We need to get the word out so people have information,” Chris See said. “But we don’t want to induce panic. People need to know that there are things that they can do to limit exposure.”

Chris See said that health officials here are also working with different social groups in Switzerland County, primarily the Amish communities that are here. He also said that officials are working to make sure that language barriers are overcome, especially in terms of dealing with minority workers who are here and who speak Spanish.

Steve Crabtree, attending the meeting as a County Councilman, asked if the county was going to have to assist with financial obligations that come with this plan. Chris See said that if the county could buy and install hand sanitizer stations in county buildings that would be a big help; and that more help may be needed if the pandemic level rises – including security.

“If you aren’t in the ‘target group’ and you show up, you won’t get the shot,” Chris See said. “That could cause some problems, but we will have to follow state and federal guidelines.”

Betty Lucas of the Switzerland County Health Department said that residents who normally get the traditional flu shot should go ahead and get that shot again this year, and that notice will be given when those shots become available here.

EMA Director George Adams said that the state and federal plan is for Switzerland County to initially receive 5,000 of the H1N1 vaccinations in the first shipment; and then 1,000 additional vaccinations each week after that. With approximately 10,000 residents, if that schedule is followed, it would take about six weeks to get every person in the county vaccinated.

Throughout the meeting health officials emphasized that all of this is preparatory work that needs to be done now in advance of any outbreak that may or may not come; and that officials with the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are currently watching the H1N1 virus in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is winter.

It is hoped that health officials will learn from what the virus does there in order to handle possible outbreaks in this part of the world once fall and winter comes.

“We don’t want to ‘cry wolf’,” Chris See said. “But we need to make sure people take this seriously. They need to wash their hands and generally use good hygiene. That’s the best way to limit exposure to this virus.”

– Pat Lanman