Local Health Officials On Swine Flu Alert

BERLIN – Even before several “probable” cases of so-called swine flue were identified in Maryland for the first time late Wednesday, local health department officials were already in a heightened state of awareness and preparedness as the disease continued to spread across the nation and around the globe.

The so-called swine flu is now being identified as H1N1 Influenza A, a never before seen strain of the flu virus that first made its appearance felt with a reported outbreak last week. As of late yesterday, there were 109 laboratory-confirmed cases in 11 states throughout the country including one confirmed death of a toddler in Texas.

On Wednesday, six probable cases were confirmed in Maryland with those potentially afflicted with the virus identified in Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties although the cases had not been officially confirmed as of late yesterday. Well in advance of the swine flu’s apparent arrival in Maryland, however, state and public health officials had set in motion plans to handle the virus if and when it arrives in the state and to carefully disseminate information about the disease and the precautions to take to an already nervous public.

While it’s rapid spread is certainly reason for concern, there is no cause for panic, according to Worcester County Health Officer Deborah Goeller. Following the state’s lead, Worcester’s health department opened its incident command center this week and public health officials are closely monitoring the situation.

“There is a very legitimate reason for concern,” she said. “At the same time, there are things we can do and are doing.”

Goeller said tracking the spread of the virus has been a bit of a moving target because the situation changes so often. Her department has opened its command center and is following prescribed protocols and pre-made plans for a potential outbreak and, perhaps more importantly, carefully getting the information out to the public without being unnecessarily alarming.

The swine flu, or H1N1 influenza, manifests itself with symptoms closely mirroring the typical seasonal flu including respiratory difficulties, cough, sore throat, body aches, diarrhea and vomiting in some cases. For that reason, the local health department, and health departments all over the state and country, are trying to spread the word about common sense approaches to avoiding contracting the virus.

They include avoiding contact with potentially infected persons, especially those who have recently traveled to or from affected areas, continually washing one’s hands, covering one’s mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing and using tissues. First and foremost, citizens exhibiting flu-like symptoms are urged to reduce exposure to others.

“You really want to take precautions, especially if you’re feeling sick,” said Goeller. “If you’re sick, don’t go to work or school. If you have mild symptoms, it’s probably best to stay home and treat them as if you had a cold or seasonal flu. If and when you become sicker, or if you have been exposed to an infected person, or have traveled to areas with confirmed cases, first call your doctor to get checked out. The message here is don’t rush out to the emergency room at the first sign of a sniffle. In most mild cases, those affected have recovered with no treatment.”

Because of the resort nature of the area with its thousands of visitors from other areas, Worcester County does present some different challenges in the face of the growing outbreak.

“In our area, with so many people in the service industry, our residents should be even more aware of the common sense approaches to avoiding exposure,” said Goeller. “Employees, if you don’t feel well, don’t go to work. For employers, don’t pressure employees to come to work if they have any of these symptoms. And by all means, continually wash your hands, which you should be doing anyway.”

Worcester County Health Department Director of Communicable Diseases Kathy Derr said at this point, the focus is on containing the spread of the swine flu until its origins, and perhaps a way to stem its spread, can be determined.

“We can’t stop this entirely,” she said. “What we can do is hope to contain it as much as we can and try to slow its transmission. If we can slow its transmission, we might be able to buy some time for the science and research on this particular strain to catch up.”

Goeller said the rise in reported cases was anticipated, but public health officials are keeping a close eye on the severity of the virus.

“The rise in numbers is something public health officials anticipated,” said Goeller. “I think everyone believes the numbers will continue to increase. We’re hoping the severity of the reported cases doesn’t increase in kind. Because this is a novel virus, we really can’t characterize it. We just don’t have enough information because it is evolving all the time.”

Derr said the unique nature of the swine flu, which incidentally is transmitted human to human and has nothing do with eating pork products, deserves careful attention.

“It’s a novel flu and not one we’ve seen before,” she said. “It’s a new strain that hasn’t been greatly circulated before and nobody has immunity to it. That’s our biggest concern.”