Health officials in Virginia say they have stepped up plans to combat a possible flu pandemic in response to increasing concern over the spread of avian flu in Asia, but most measures are months from completion.
Officials have conducted informational sessions about the disease around the state and have convened a panel of doctors, scientists and medical ethicists to talk about such thorny issues as who should be first in line for a limited supply of vaccines or antiviral drugs. The panel is scheduled to complete preliminary recommendations by the end of the month.
In Northern Virginia, officials are planning drills on dispensing medicines to large groups of people quickly. They also are planning to expand a program to share information about emergency room activity at hospitals with emergency management authorities.
For years, health officials have been warning about the possibility of a flu pandemic -- a worldwide outbreak that could kill millions. News of a virulent strain of bird flu traversing Asia that has killed millions of birds and roughly half of the more than 100 people known to have been infected has heightened concern.
But officials say the avian flu is not yet spread easily from person to person.
"It's a very frightening situation, the most frightening change we've seen in influenza in a long time," said Diane Woolard, director of surveillance and investigation for the state Department of Health.
A flu pandemic would be far different from the flu bugs that ordinarily affect millions each winter in the United States and can be controlled with established vaccines.
"A pandemic would likely be a novel influenza strain we have not had previous immunity built up for," said Raja'a Satouri, deputy director of medical services for the Fairfax County Health Department. That's why it would be more devastating than the general flu season."
Fears of an influenza pandemic gained greater prominence last week when President Bush said at a news conference that he would consider using the military to enforce quarantines if necessary.
Local officials said many of the plans put in place to combat biochemical or other emergencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would be used during an outbreak of a virulent flu. Such plans would affect how authorities dispense vaccines and antiviral drugs.
For example, Loudoun health officials will activate the county's medical reserve corps Oct. 22 for a dispensing drill -- using jelly beans as pills -- at Potomac Falls High School, said David Goodfriend, the county's health director. Fairfax County will hold a drill Dec. 3.
Emergency management officials have received a $2.9 million federal grant to expand Arlington's Metropolitan Medical Response System throughout the region. The homeland security measure would be key to fighting a flu pandemic, officials said.
The program would link hospitals with emergency management centers around the region so officials would know how many beds are available in a crisis. It also would allow jurisdictions to stockpile emergency pharmaceuticals, such as the antibiotic Cipro and antivirals, said Arlington Fire Chief James H. Schwartz.
Alison Ansher, acting health director for Prince William County, said she had scheduled a briefing on bird flu for emergency officials and others this week. On Nov. 4, the county will test a method of "drive-through" vaccinations for county volunteers who need tetanus shots, she said.
Health officials fear hospitals could quickly be overwhelmed if an outbreak were to spread through the United States. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said last week that "no one in the world is ready" for a bird flu outbreak. The 1918-19 pandemic of Spanish flu, which scientists say was a bird flu, killed as many as 50 million.
"The one place where our planning needs continuing work is dealing with the large number of very sick people that could exceed the capacity of the normal health system," said John Clizbe, the Alexandria Health Department's emergency planner. "It's not that the planning doesn't exist, it's that the capacity doesn't exist."