Local Officials Prepare For Arrival of Swine Flu

By Ashley Halsey III and Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Against a backdrop of 30 state emergency workers in matching polo shirts receiving computer reports from health centers and hospitals, Maryland health authorities said yesterday it is virtually inevitable that swine flu will surface in the Washington region.

"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," said David Paulson of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "It's just too darn infectious, and we have too many people in this area who travel."

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) trooped into the swine flu command center in Baltimore with a phalanx of health officials yesterday to underscore the coordination and communication efforts of state and regional officials as they seek to identify and deal with an illness that has not yet surfaced here.

O'Malley said the state has stockpiled 276,000 courses of antiviral medication and has access to 200,000 from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Richmond, where another state command center opened, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said that it was not certain that swine flu would hit Virginia but that the state had enough medication on hand to treat 770,000 cases and that drugs for treating 280,000 more were on their way from the CDC.

In the District, health department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said the city is carefully monitoring reports from health systems and also expects to receive antiviral medicine from the CDC.

In all three jurisdictions, health officials were rolling out crisis management plans developed, tested and honed in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks coupled with the deadly anthrax attacks later that year. "We have been planning for a situation like this for many years," Kaine said, echoing exactly the words of Maryland Health Secretary John M. Colmers.

Both states are using computer-linked reporting from hospital emergency rooms and health centers to provide almost immediate data on flulike symptoms. In addition, Maryland is using its system for monitoring over-the-counter sales in pharmacies to watch for any uptick in the sale of remedies used for respiratory problems.

Sheliah Roy, a spokeswoman for Sibley Memorial Hospital, which is making masks and hand wipes available to people coming to the emergency room, said that as of mid-morning yesterday five people had come to the District hospital to be tested for swine flu, but no cases had been confirmed.

At Dulles International Airport, some passengers arriving on United Airlines' afternoon flight from Mexico City wore surgical masks as they cleared customs.

"It was very strange in the plane," said Iasas Lagums of Harrisonburg. "And in the restaurant in the [Mexico City] airport, even the pilots wore masks."

Frank Calia, an infectious-disease specialist who chairs the department of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that swine flu will surface within three days of contact with someone else who has the illness.

Whatever their personal precautions, travelers found a measured response by U.S airports. So far, Transportation Security Administration and customs agents are doing nothing to screen passengers from Mexico other than watching them for obvious flu symptoms.

The airlines have instituted the same "passive surveillance" program, instructing ticket agents to alert security or CDC officials if they encounter sick passengers.

In an effort to reach out to immigrant communities, officials have also done interviews on Spanish radio and television, emphasizing the importance of hand washing and other strategies to keep the virus at bay.

The growing anxiety was particularly palpable yesterday in Riverdale, where so many Mexican immigrants have settled in recent years that most shop signs in the Prince George's County town are painted red and green, like the Mexican flag.

About 10 patients have called to request vaccination shots from Centro Medico Riverdale, a private health clinic serving mostly Mexicans, according to medical assistant Brenda Martinez. Though she tells callers that the only shots available are against regular flu, several have made appointments anyway.

"This is definitely a sign of concern," said Martinez. "Normally we would never get requests for flu shots this late in year."

Elizabeth Duarte, 31, one of the patients seated in the clinic's waiting area late yesterday morning, was trying a different strategy: "Yesterday I bought four bottles of that disinfectant hand gel to keep in different places all around my house," said Duarte, who is Guatemalan but was worried because most of her co-workers at a nearby McDonald's are Mexican.

Jaime Susunaga, 50, a Mexican-born butcher at the El Super Store supermarket at the nearby Plaza del Alamo strip mall, said he has been searching for a surgical mask since Saturday.

"People can laugh at me, but if I can find a mask, no one is taking it off me," he said, shouting to be heard over a Mexican cumbia tune playing on his stereo at the back of the store. "You just don't know if someone around here has just gotten back from Mexico and is carrying the virus."

Staff writers Steve Hendrix, N.C. Aizenman, Anita Kumar and Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report. Comments: health@washpost.com.

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