Government workers brace for worst in H1N1 outbreak

De Beque Fire Chief Nick Marx was standing in line recently at the Mesa County Health Department to get vaccinated against the H1N1 virus when he received a page. He had to leave without getting vaccinated.

Marx said he would try again when he has time and the Health Department has more vaccine. He has told his department’s nine firefighters they are personally responsible for getting vaccinated.

Earlier this month two officers from the Grand Junction Police Department called in sick with the H1N1 flu virus, Deputy Chief John Zen said. Their patrol shift was already shorthanded because a handful of officers were either out on scheduled vacations or had illness unrelated to the flu.

“We had to just grab a couple people from other teams that would not be affected,” Zen said.

Mark Angelo, chief of the Fruita Police Department, oversees 15 officers. He knows that if H1N1 affects a handful of his officers, he might have to work a patrol shift.

“We kind of have (a contingency plan) up in our head, but nothing written,” Angelo said.

Communities small and large are having to deal with the affects of H1N1. Grand Junction and Mesa County are putting the finishing touches on their respective pandemic influenza response plans, also known as continuity-of-operations plans. The plans address shortages of personnel, department by department, if people must miss work because they are ill or they must take care of an ill relative.

The city of Grand Junction’s plan assumes that “as many as 40 percent of our employees could become ill at the pandemic’s peak,” according to the 78-page report. “Another 5 percent may fail to report to work, either because they fear becoming ill or because they are caring for afflicted family members.”

The peak of the influenza pandemic could come in mid-November, according to Dr. Michael Aduddell, director of the Mesa County Health Department. Aduddell based that assumption on reviewing the death certificates of 1918 pandemic victims.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a statement this week that suggested the crisis already peaked, at least in the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area. The peak of hospitalizations, on the Front Range, for influenza-like illnesses happened during the week ending Oct. 10, according to the Health Department.

Rich Englehart, Grand Junction’s deputy city manager, said the city has been working on its version of an influenza response plan for at least the past three months.

Currently the city is in the first stage of the two-stage response plan.

“We aren’t seeing significant (absenteeism) numbers right now,” Englehart said.

The plan asks that each city department establish basic protocols such as hand washing, and it has a list of “minimum required supplies” for first responders and employees who have a “high degree of public contact.”

The Grand Junction Fire Department has contingency plans for juggling work shifts if it has significantly reduced manpower. Additionally, all fire and police agencies in the county cooperate and assist each other in times of crises.

If one agency is low on manpower, it could ask neighboring agencies to assist.

In the event the flu reaches deep into the community, the Grand Junction Police Department would modify patrols to focus on key locations such as schools, hospitals and transit stations, according to the study.

The city and the county have updated guidelines for employees taking sick leave in the event of a pandemic. The county’s policy gives employees various ways to take time off for healing themselves or relatives. It also allows employees to work from home or be sent to an alternate work location.

The Sheriff’s Department’s plan is being drafted, according to department spokeswoman Heather Benjamin.

Andy Martsolf, Mesa County’s emergency manager, said the county’s plan is nearing completion and will give the county a road map to deal with numerous emergencies.

“I’m not trying to create something specific for H1N1,” he said.


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