Area health groups prepare for outbreak

Mesa County hospitals and schools say they are taking the same precautions in response to the spread of swine flu in the U.S. as they would in relation to any flu outbreak.

Local health officials insist there’s no reason to run to the pharmacy or grocery store and strip bare the shelves of flu medication and surgical masks.

And as of Wednesday, swine flu had killed one person in the country, compared to the 36,000 people who die from seasonal influenza every year.

Those facts and figures prompt the question: Why are people so alarmed by the swine flu?

Those closely watching the virus say the answer lies in its novelty and proximity.

“The images coming out of Mexico, you see people wearing masks, you see security folks with guns, and it’s just a very different image than what we see here in the U.S.,” said Kristy Emerson, spokeswoman for the Mesa County Health Department.

Emerson said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s declaration of a public health emergency likely raised red flags, although she noted the federal government takes that step simply so it can tap into national stockpiles of medical supplies that are strategically placed around the country.

“That declaration, as well as the fact that it’s a new virus, the public knows enough to know that if it’s something new and people haven’t developed an immunity to it, that’s scary,” she said.

That response from the public differs greatly from how people react to the ordinary, seven-month flu season. During the current season, which ends in May, four children in
Colorado have died, including two on the Western Slope. More than 500 people have been hospitalized, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

“Seasonal flu comes every year, and it’s something we talk about in the news, and we try to get people to come in and get their vaccines, and we just don’t have a response like we do to this swine flu,” Emerson said.

For the time being, health officials recommend people follow the same simple steps to avoid swine flu infection as any other communicable virus: Wash your hands frequently; stay home if you’re sick; and sneeze or cough into a tissue or your elbow rather than your hands.

Obtaining masks isn’t recommended at this point because officials don’t yet know whether they provide any benefit, Emerson said.

Community Hospital spokeswoman Becky Jessen said the hospital is following typical flu precautions, requesting patients and people who need medical attention to wear a mask if they exhibit flu-like symptoms and requesting visitors who exhibit such symptoms to stay away
from the hospital altogether.

“Most health organizations have pretty set infection-control guidelines in place and step it up to that typical procedure (when there’s a flu outbreak),” she said.

School District 51 nurses are passing out to classrooms instructional videos on proper hand washing and hand sanitizing techniques, although district spokesman Jeff Kirtland said that message is part of a consistent refrain throughout the school year.

“Typically what we’ve always done, realizing that children are in tight spaces and there’s a good opportunity for contracting all sorts of things, is get in the practice of good measures to take. And there are tissues everywhere,” he said.

Kirtland said parents who have questions or concerns about the swine flu should contact the county Health Department.

Emerson said the department is monitoring the outbreak daily, and although the spread is similar to seasonal flu currently, officials are aware that could change quickly.

“The virus could change, could go in a different direction, and the story could be very different,” she said.


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