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Prevent Swine Flu
Businesses should have contingency plans in case employees become sick

KPBJ Cover 2210Public health officials estimate that as many as 30 percent of Americans could get infected with the H1N1 swine flu this year. Add that to the number of people affected every year by the seasonal flu (which can be contracted even after having the swine flu), and the numbers could be staggering. And while one thing’s for sure — the swine flu is here — no one knows what to expect and how spread the pandemic will be.

But public health and health-care experts are not taking any chances. Locally, Kitsap County Health District went into incident command mode in September, which helps better coordinate the response and multiple tasks, according to Scott Daniels, deputy director. “One of the main differences between this flu and the seasonal flu is that we’re expecting higher illness rates with the swine flu,” he said. “It’s a novel type of virus that people don’t have immunity to.”

The number of H1N1 cases in Kitsap County is unknown, because the state Department of Health changed the reporting criteria in May and not all suspected cases are now tested; the monitoring is focused on fatalities and hospitalizations. Statewide, 14 deaths and 164 hospitalizations have been attributed to the swine flu as of Sept. 11. State officials said the deaths were among people in high-risk categories, including two pregnant women and people with other health conditions.

H1N1 Flu VirusThe symptoms of H1N1 are similar to the seasonal influenza but the risk categories are different. Children and adults under 24, pregnant women and people between ages 25 and 64 with chronic illnesses that compromise the immune system are considered at high risk for the swine flu; these categories as well as health care and emergency medical personnel are considered high priority for the vaccine.

Daniels said the health department’s outreach strategy includes working with health-care providers, tribes, local governments, day care centers, nursing homes, school districts and private schools. The agency is also working with major employers, civic groups and others, delivering presentations and information.

The state is expecting one million doses of the vaccine by mid-October and additional ones throughout the season, according to Washington State Department of Health Communications Director Tim Church. He said the vaccines will be delivered directly to distribution points such as pharmacies, as identified by local health departments.

Franciscan Health System, which owns St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor and has a clinic in Port Orchard, is strongly encouraging their employees to get the flu shots. Those who decline will have to sign a declination with their reasons, get additional education, as well as go through additional steps in certain circumstances. St. Anthony officials are making plans for accommodating an influx of additional patients, creating extra capacity, as well as instructing employees how to be ready for extra shifts in case of staff shortages.

“The general public should not be frightened,” said Marion Ray, director of infectious disease control for Franciscan. “What they need to do is use basic infection prevention practices — washing hands, staying home when sick and covering the mouth when coughing.”

Harrison Medical Center is not mandating the vaccinations but staff are highly encouraged to get the shots, based on the same categories as the general public.

“We’re preparing for the flu season as we usually do and putting a plan in place for an influx. Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” said Cathy McDonald, director of infectious disease at Harrison.

She said Harrison is reviewed procedures for dealing with overflow, need for additional supplies, as well as educating the public — including hospital visitors — on how they can help minimize the spread of the disease.

Many people have posed concerns about the H1N1 vaccine and the potential side-effects. “There is always a concern with a new vaccine but I would assure folks this vaccine has and is going through trials to make sure it’s safe,” Daniels said.

Employers are advised to send their employees home, and keep them home, in cases of suspected flu. Businesses should also have contingency plans in case a large number of employees become sick.

“The seasonal flu itself is dangerous,” Church said. “With the H1F1, this has the potential of being a difficult fall and we want to be as ready as possible, and people in our state should be as ready as possible.”

Resources and information for businesses and the public are available at www.doh.wa.gov and www.kitsapcountyhealth.com.

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