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Avian flu drill reveals glitches

Breakdown in communication between public agencies proved the main glitch in an avian flu drill that the county’s public health director called a learning experience, with “many issues that need to be addressed.”

“Operation Sick Chicken,” an exercise held by public health and safety officials in January, smoked out weaknesses in the county’s response to a killer flu pandemic, Public Health Director Joseph Iser said Wednesday.

However, an “after-action” report outlining the public safety issues that need attention has yet to be released, six months after the drill occurred.

“I want to share that information with department heads before releasing it to the media,” Iser said.

The agencies involved were the Nevada County Office of Emergency Services; Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital; Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee; Miner’s Clinic, formerly in Nevada City; the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office; local fire departments and paramedics; churches; schools; the American Red Cross and volunteers.

Drill participants had to declare a state of emergency, distribute anti-viral medication to caregivers, close every school in Nevada County, quarantine neighborhoods and establish a command center.

Iser, a public health medical officer for more than 20 years, had just taken over the job as the county’s public health director a week before the drill. He didn’t know many of the county officials he was thrown into working with.

“It was good and bad,” Iser said. “I didn’t know people’s names, but it got me involved.”

Bird virus a

‘significant threat’

Communication started to break down between the command center set up at the Rood Center in Nevada City and the Public Health Department in Grass Valley, and between public health agencies in Truckee and Grass Valley during the drill, Iser said.

But participants worked well together, he said, and added he has confidence that in a real-world emergency, all agencies will pull together to protect the county’s citizens.

“We’ll do very well,” Iser said. “Even though I didn’t know people very well, I watched them work under stress and I came out knowing I could trust them. They watched me under stress, and they could see they could trust me, as well.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health professionals are concerned that the continued spread of a highly pathogenic avian virus (H5N1) across eastern Asia and other countries represents a significant threat to human health:

“The H5N1 virus has raised concerns about a potential human pandemic because it is especially virulent, it is being spread by migratory birds, it can be transmitted from birds to mammals and in some limited circumstances, to humans. Like other influenza viruses, it continues to evolve,” the federal agency reports on its pandemic flu Web site.

Close contact with infected poultry has been the primary source for human infection, according to a power-point presentation by Iser.

The human death rate from the virus, Iser says, is 50 to 60 percent. The virus could become a pandemic because of its human respiratory transmission, and a periodic outbreak is overdue. There have been pandemic flu outbreaks in 1918, 1957 and 1968.

For more information about avian influenza, visit http://www.pandemicflu.gov or call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hotline, 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636).

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To contact Staff Writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail robynm@theunion.com or call 477-4236.

How to plan for a pandemic:

• Store a two week supply of water and food. During a pandemic, if you cannot get to a store, or if stores are out of supplies, it will be important for you to have extra supplies on hand.

• Have any nonprescription drugs and other health supplies on hand, including pain relievers, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes and vitamins.

• Talk with family members and loved ones about how they would be cared for if they got sick or what will be needed to care for them in your home.

• Volunteer with local groups to prepare and assist with emergency response.

• Get involved in your community as it works to prepare for an influenza pandemic.

To limit the spread of germs and prevent infection:

• Teach your children to wash their hands frequently with soap and water and model the correct behavior.

• Teach your children to cover coughs and sneezes with tissues and be sure to model that behavior.

• Teach your children to stay away from others as much as possible if they are sick. Stay home from work and school if sick.

-Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

For information on how to prepare the workplace for a flu pandemic, visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration Web site at http://www.osha.gov/Publications/influenza_pandemic.html