Groups Work to Prepare Alexandria for Pandemic Flu

"I don't think we can assume that every pandemic is going to look like 1918," one Alexandria official said. "On the other hand, we should plan in case it is." (1918 Photo From Library Of Congress)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

When Alexandrians opened their June FYI newsletter, out slipped a slick brochure with a photo of a stern-faced crowd staring out from the cover. "Be Ready, Alexandria!" the boldface type warned, "For a Pandemic Flu Outbreak."

The brochure is the latest in the city's 18-month-long effort to plan for a worst-case-scenario outbreak that could sicken as many as 1 in 4 in the city -- and around the world.

"We must take this risk very seriously," Mayor William D. Euille said in an interview. "If a pandemic were to occur, we are going to have a lot of people infected. People are going to die. Some people are going to have to be quarantined. Events are going to have to be canceled. Schools are going to have to be closed. It's a serious state of affairs.

"Rather than wait until something happens and be reactive, my position is to be proactive," he said.

So seriously have Euille and city leaders taken the threat of a flu pandemic that they have gathered representatives from government, business, hospitals, churches, nonprofit groups and other organizations for meetings. They have been meeting since November 2005 to figure out how to respond to an outbreak. Eight work groups are considering such matters as how government would continue to function, where emergency health stations could be set up, how to keep the supply of groceries flowing and, most soberly, finding warehouse space for bodies should fatalities overwhelm local mortuaries.

The mayor had his first flu pandemic town hall meeting on May 30 -- planned well after the flu season so as not to panic residents -- to talk about the efforts and to encourage residents to come up with their own emergency plans. In recent months, the city has experimented with setting up an involuntary quarantine and held a court hearing of a mock appeal by closed-circuit television. Euille said he plans to release his finalized pandemic plan to the public in September.

The main message to residents is this: If the worst happens, you have to be able to fend for yourself. Wash your hands. Stay home if you have flu symptoms, unless the situation becomes dire. Don't expect grocery stores to have as much food as usual or restaurants to be serving. Have medicines and a supply of water and canned and dry food on hand.

"People are going to need to do some of this themselves," said John Clizbe, emergency planner for the city's Health Department. "There isn't anything that the government or the private sector can do to assure people that everything is going to be like it normally is, because it won't be.

"The important message in that brochure is, people need to start thinking how they are going to be accountable for some of their own health care," he said. "There are things people are going to have to do differently if a pandemic comes."

There were three major flu pandemics in the 20th century, including the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide in less than two years. An estimated 20 percent of the world's population was affected by the virus. The 1957-58 Asian flu and the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu each caused an estimated 4 million deaths worldwide.

Public health officials have been warning for years that another pandemic is not only possible but also likely. "It's just a matter of time," said Mark Penn, Alexandria's emergency management coordinator.

The genetic makeup of the common flu virus "drifts" and mutates every year, making it hard for researchers to predict the change and devise an effective vaccine from year to year. But once in a while, that genetic drift becomes a radical shift, officials explained, and a new virus is born to which humans have no immunity. That's what makes a pandemic so deadly.

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