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Is county ready for global flu pandemic?

If this winter brings with it a global flu pandemic, will St. Croix County be ready?

A stakeholders meeting involving representatives from county government, law enforcement, schools, municipalities, hospitals and the Red Cross was conducted Tuesday, Aug. 29, to help answer that question. Geralyn Karl, public health preparedness planner, told the group the sobering reality that a flu outbreak could bring.

"It's not like a natural disaster that comes and goes," she said. "It could last four, six or eight weeks, and then it could come back later. It could mutate and come back in a different form."

Once a human pandemic begins, Karl said it could be a global problem for more than two years. Vaccines would not be available for wide distribution for six to eight months. Deaths related to the flu could total between 38 and 313 during an eight-week period in the county, depending upon the severity of the pandemic.

Businesses, hospitals and government agencies should expect about a 35 percent absentee rate among employees if an outbreak occurs. That rate will include people who are sick, people who are caring for loved ones who are sick and others who stay home to avoid contact with sick people.

Because of absentees, responding to an outbreak becomes even more challenging, she said.

In the event that the pandemic is severe, experts predict there will be a shortage of medical supplies and space at hospitals. Funeral homes could face serious challenges to keep up with a rising death rate.

"There is no way Public Health can do this on their own," Karl said. "But that's where people are going to turn."

It's important that all sectors of society be involved in preparing for a possible outbreak, Karl said. And people who believe the federal government will leap to the aid of communities affected by a pandemic are mistaken, she added.

"We need to take care of each other in our own back yard," she said. Individuals can begin the preparedness effort by creating a plan at home, Karl said. How will families respond if a flu bug sweeps across the county?

Businesses and government agencies must continue to work together to develop a plan in case its needed, said Ogden Rogers, the meeting facilitator and professor from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

"We need to think about the unthinkable and we might be able to rise to it," he said. "We need to look for where the gaps (in preparedness) might exist, and how we might be able to step up to the plate."

Ogden, who worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 20 years, said he remembers staying home from school for two weeks during the Hong Kong flu pandemic of the 1960s. A modern-day pandemic could be even more dire, he said.

"We need to start thinking about what our world will look like," he said. "What if one-third of people might not be able to perform their jobs?"

Rogers then pushed the issue beyond a hypothetical tabletop game.

"It's coming," he warned.

Officials spent the morning talking about their roles in response to an outbreak.

Among the topics discussed were getting information to the public, how schools will deal with a possible flu outbreak, how will mass immunization clinics be organized, and what hospitals must do to effectively quarantine patients.

School districts in New Richmond and Glenwood City have been identified as two entities that will track absentee rates this winter to get a jump on possible flu outbreaks.

The Public Health office has already developed a public information plan to keep the public up-to-date on prevention and health issues.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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