Local health officials have prepared for potential flu outbreak

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Although no cases of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, have been reported in Barry County, local health and emergency management officials are preparing to respond to any potential outbreaks.

"We have planned and prepared for a swine flu outbreak in Monett, Barry County and Missouri," said Janell Patton, Cox Monett Hospital director of community relations and volunteer services.

The H1N1 virus is a respiratory disease much like the regular seasonal influenza that health professionals combat each year. The virus, which is a form of influenza A, is spread person-to-person and can cause mild, moderate or serious symptoms.

"The virus is a combination of an avian and swine virus," said Sandy Jastal, Cox Monett Hospital chief nursing officer. "It has mutated and that is why everybody is concerned."

Currently, there is no vaccination available for the H1N1 virus. If a vaccine is developed for the virus, it will not be distributed until around October.

"It takes six months to create a vaccine," said Kathleen King, Barry County Health Department administrator. "We might not even have a vaccine available by next flu season."

Around 25 percent of the nation's antiviral medication has been released to states across the country. If Missouri decides to distribute its portion of the medication, the local health department and the local office of emergency management will be responsible for determining where the medication is available.

"If the state decides to release the medication to the counties, we have plans in place for the transportation and stockpiling of the medication," said David Compton, Barry County Emergency Management director.

For the time being, local individuals are urged to take precautionary measures to limit the spread of viruses. Proper handwashing techniques and cough and sneeze etiquette will help combat the spread of influenza and other illnesses.

"This virus is spread by respiratory transmission in droplet form," said Jastal. "When someone coughs or sneezes, the droplets go out and hang in the air until they drop on someone. You can get this virus from someone sneezing or coughing on you or from touching a doorknob and rubbing your eyes, nose or mouth."

"Right now the best thing to do is what your mother has always said," said Compton. "Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough and wash your hands."

Individuals are also encouraged to stay home when feeling ill and keep their children at home if they are sick.

"If your kids don't feel well or if you are sick call your employer and say that you are going to stay at home," said Compton. "Say you are doing this on the advice of the CDC (Center for Disease Control). The best way to keep viruses from spreading is to stay away from each other when you are sick."

Linda Lauderdale, Monett R-I School District nursing manager, has shared information on the H1N1 virus with all of the district's staff members. Although more children are being sent to the nurse for coughs and other symptoms, Lauderdale said she is happy to check more kids in hopes of catching any potential problems.

Cox Monett Hospital employees are also taking extra measures to limit the spread of germs. Railings and buttons in elevators, door knobs and other fixtures are being cleaned more frequently. The hospital has also established cough etiquette stations, which offer masks, hand cleaner and tissues in all of the waiting rooms.

English and Spanish health fact sheets have been distributed to all inpatients, outpatients and staff members to ensure individuals in the hospital have the proper information.

"We are also making sure we have what we need if this becomes a pandemic outbreak," said Jastal. "We are checking our supply levels for specific items that we need during the influenza season."

The local health department, emergency management office and Cox Monett Hospital have also worked with St. John's Hospital-Cassville, St. John's Hospital-Aurora and Neosho Freeman Hospital to develop plans for a possible pandemic outbreak.

In October of 2008, the hospitals and agencies worked together to open a medical cache in Monett, which is capable of serving 250 patients. This and other emergency plans will allow local healthcare organizations to treat individuals for several days without assistance from agencies outside the county.

"It is realistic to say Missouri is going to have a case," said Compton. "Barry County has an indirect border to Mexico. We have Mexican stores and all of those stores import products from Mexico to the United States on a weekly basis. A number of our residents go back and forth between the United States and Mexico.

"It is important for people to know that we have a plan in place," said Compton. "If we need to open an emergency operations center and distribute the strategic national stockpile of medication, we will be able to."

Although local health and emergency management officials are preparing for a potential outbreak, local residents are reminded that 40,000 Americans die from complications caused by seasonal influenza every year.

"We don't want the population to panic," said Patton. "We just want people to be concerned and know how to help themselves."

King suggested families prepare for a potential pandemic outbreak by assembling an emergency kit that has enough food, water, medication and supplies to sustain them for 72 hours without assistance. This type of kit would help individuals care for themselves during any type of emergency situation.

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