Health Department hosts conference on emergency preparedness
What would happen if a flu pandemic or a natural or terrorist made disaster on the scale of Katrina happened in the area? How would area medical and emergency professionals respond? How important is it to have a working plan in place?
These are some of the questions that the Conference on Pandemic Flu Preparation for Morgan County tried to answer. The conference was hosted at the Country Inn on Thursday night, June 7 by the Morgan County Health Department. Approximately 40 physicians, pharmacists, medical professionals and concerned citizens from the Eastern Panhandle attended the session.
Morgan County Health Department Administrator Karen Dawson kicked off the conference and talked about goals for the evening.
"If a pandemic does happen, how can we best serve Morgan County? Hopefully, one of the outcomes of the conference will be that some volunteers from the medical community will step up to the plate and help us develop a medical plan in case we did have a pandemic flu disaster or other medical disaster," Dawson said.
Impact of a Pandemic
Morgan County Health Officer Dr. Donald Straus, introduced the first speaker, Berkeley County Health Officer Dr. Diana Gaviria. Prior to becoming the health officer of Berkeley County, Dr. Gaviria practiced family medicine in a group practice in Martinsburg for 9 years.
Gaviria presented a slide presentation outlining the impact of a pandemic flu outbreak. She explained that pandemic flu outbreaks are a natural occurrence caused by novel strains of flu for which people have no immunity and that are easily transmitted person to person.
A pandemic flu outbreak can have a 30% attack rate on the general population and a 40% rate on emergency medical staff.
Gaviria cited the 1918-1919 flu pandemic which caused 550,000 deaths in the U.S. and the 1957-1958 pandemic, which she described more typical, when 77,000 died.
"How are you going to function if forty percent of your staff is out during a pandemic?" Gaviria asked.
Gaviria said the Center for Disease Control rates the threat of a flu pandemic on a scale similar to how hurricanes are rated. The Pandemic of 1918 was rated at level 5. Currently the H5M1 bird flu virus is considered a pandemic threat but only rated at level 3 because it is not yet easily transmitted between humans – a fact that could change.
Gaviria said that if a pandemic did strike, schools would be closed to prevent the spread of the disease. These schools could be used as alternate care centers. Patients would have to be isolated and doctors would have to perform clinical diagnosis rather than wait on laboratory results.
Triage centers would be necessary to separate those with the most serious infections who need acute care, from those who need hospital care and those who could survive with home care.
In addition to local doctors and current medical staff, the community would have to call on others such as retired medical professionals, EMTs, dentists, veterinarians and medical students to help out during a crisis.
The need for planning
After a break for dinner, Dawson introduced the second speaker of the night, Joseph M. Letnaunchyn, CEO of the West Virginia Hospital Association. Previously he served as President and CEO of the Delaware Healthcare Association from 1994 – 2006. Letnaunchyn has been involved in emergency disaster planning with the Department of Homeland Security.
Letnaunchyn talked about what might happen if a disaster such as the recent tornado in Greensburg, Kansas would happen in the Washington, D.C. area.
"D.C. will come west when all hell breaks loose. If an event occurs, it is anything but business as usual," Letnaunchyn said.
He went on to explain that people will flock to hospitals and that doctors may as well forget going to their usual practice. Telephones and cell phones will not be working. In a disaster, the only reliable communications is two-way radio.
Local hospitals will shoulder a big responsibility. Planning should be done for alternate and acute care centers and for persons who don't need to be hospitalized.
"Get the people out of the hospital that don't need the hospital," Letnaunchyn said.
Questions such as who pays when doctors are working in an acute or alternate care center or what the medical malpractice implications are need to be answered.
"Planning for emergency disasters is the right thing to do. You cannot do enough planning or education," Letnaunchyn said. He also emphasized that as Katrina proved, you can't wait for the federal government to react.
Dawson led the discussion following Letnaunchyn's talk. She said she would like to form a working group of pharmacists and physicians to help form a plan. Dawson said that War Memorial Hospital and the Health Department were already working together.
Dr. Matthew Hahn of Tri-State Community Health Center in Hancock said he would like to see another meeting between doctors, emergency services and the health department to review what plans exist. He felt doctors would be more inclined to volunteer if specific areas for participation were defined.
Dr. Pamela Quarantillo of Berkeley Springs suggested that a rotation could be set up of doctors and medical personnel to staff any alternate, acute, or triage centers during an emergency.
Dr. Joseph Hashem of Berkeley Springs said he thought one person would need to be in charge if an incident occurred.
Asked who would be in charge if a pandemic or disaster occurred, Dawson said the Morgan County Commission and County Emergency Services are tasked by the state to take the lead. The Health Officer and Health Department would also be closely involved.
No one from the Morgan County Commission or the county Office of Emergency Services attended the conference.