State, local officials preparing for swine flu

The swine flu has yet to appear in upstate New York, but state and local authorities are taking meas

The swine flu has yet to appear in upstate New York, but state and local authorities are taking measures to handle the contagious respiratory disease should it ever arrive. Twenty-eight swine flu cases were confirmed in the state as of Monday, all in the New York City area.

Gov. David Paterson on Sunday activated the state’s health emergency preparedness plan, putting a network of first-responders, hospital, school and health department officials on high alert to quickly identify and respond to any cases of swine flu.

Dr. Guthrie Birkhead, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Health, said the state is monitoring emergency rooms and other systems each day, looking for evidence of a widespread outbreak of the swine flu. “We have been hearing about suspect cases around the state and are evaluating those cases,” he said.

The state has also mobilized its Wadsworth Center Laboratory to examine samples. “We are limiting samples to cases where we have clusters and symptoms of travel. We are not testing everyone because that would overwhelm the system,” Birkhead said.

Birkhead also cautioned that the state is in the final stages of the normal flu season, which can go into May. “It was a fairly mild year and we had tens of thousands of cases and have had many deaths from [seasonal] flu.”

Swine flu, like seasonal flu, can vary from mild to severe in humans. It is seldom fatal, according to the CDC. The last reported fatality in the United States was in 1988. But Mexico has reported nearly 150 deaths linked to this outbreak of the swine flu.

Birkhead said the confirmed cases of swine flu “seem to have begun in Mexico and it is not clear how many cases there were. Some of them were students who had traveled to Mexico,” he said.

Birkhead said the state is well-prepared to handle an outbreak of flu, swine or otherwise. “This is the kind of scenario we have been working on for years,” he said.

The state has an emergency stockpile of 2.5 million treatment courses of flu antiviral medications “that we know will work with this swine flu,” Birkhead said.

Glynnis Hunt, nurse educator for Schenectady County Public Health Services, said the county has been in contact with the state for several days, preparing its local response. “The county has been busy,” she said.

The county is asking area hospitals, nursing homes, schools and preschools to increase surveillance of their populations and report any increased illnesses or increased absenteeism, Hunt said. “As of right now, we don’t have reports of suspect cases,” she said.

Terry Stortz, director of preventive health services for Saratoga County, said the county is on heightened alert.

“We are getting information out and linking up our Web site to the state’s Web site. We are getting information out to providers and schools on what to do with upper respiratory ailments. We have not identified any cases here,” she said.

Schools, businesses and other establishments remain open in the region, though some are taking special steps.

The Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District, for example, was asked to share information with school staff, students and parents about how to prevent the spread of germs and how to obtain additional information about the swine flu, according to spokeswoman Christy Multer.

“We need to keep this in perspective. We should all us wash our hands and remember basic hygiene,” she said.

Multer said an important fact is that some people may get a strain of flu not related to swine flu. “Not all cases of flu are swine flu. There is regular season influenza,” she said.

Ed Plog of Empress Travel and Cruises in Schenectady said he has seen only a minor impact on business due to the swine flu outbreak.

“People are asking about it and rethinking their travel plans to Mexico,” Plog said. But, he added, most people do not go to Mexico this time of year anyway. “They go in the winter,” he said.

Hunt said Schenectady County is telling health agencies to collect specimens from any suspected swine flu patients.

The county’s response to a confirmed case will depend on how it unfolds. “In the past we have done drills on this. We have practiced on getting large numbers of medicine to people. We have been doing this through regular flu vaccines and we have a medical reserve corps to assist us,” Hunt said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said antiviral drugs such oseltamivir or zanamivir are effective in treating and preventing swine flu. People are potentially contagious as long as they are symptomatic and possibly for up to seven days following illness onset. Children, especially younger children, might potentially be contagious for longer periods, the CDC said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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