2006 SUMMIT COVERAGE: Pandemic could cripple routine health services

Editor's Note: This article was updated Aug 16, 2006, to correct a potentially misleading statement in the 3rd-to-last paragraph regarding Seattle residents' concerns.

Feb 15, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – A major influenza pandemic would make it very difficult for the US healthcare system to maintain routine services, a reality that few Americans are aware of, a public health official said at a preparedness conference in Minneapolis today.

"I don't think Americans are the least bit prepared" for the potential effects on the health system, said Dorothy Teeter, interim director of public health for Seattle and King County, Wash. She was part of a panel at a national meeting on business preparedness for pandemic flu.

Teeter said her department has assembled a coalition of healthcare organizations "to work on what the healthcare system would look like" during a pandemic, when hospitals and clinics could be overwhelmed by thousands of seriously ill patients.

"We have a whole team working on triage, self-care, and telephonic consultations," among other approaches for maintaining services to special populations in that situation, Teeter said.

"People will have to understand there will be a very different [healthcare] system in place," she said. "If you don't tell them the truth, I think we'll have a huge social unrest problem."

King County has also set up groups to work with the business community and with public officials on pandemic preparedness, Teeter reported. The business group has discussed issues such as school closings. Business leaders said they would like a couple of days' warning if the county decides to close schools, because many parents then would need to stay home to care for their children, she said.

"You balance the business continuity and the general health of the community," Teeter said.

She also said the county is stockpiling oseltamivir (Tamiflu) to help maintain the healthcare workforce. "We're not thinking about prophylactic use, because there's not enough Tamiflu," she said. "But we are going to be prepositioning Tamiflu. . . . We've been able to buy Tamiflu over and above normal use."

The pandemic threat has Seattle residents asking questions about ideas that may sound extreme, according to Teeter. For example, some have asked about the community's ability to handle a surge in victims from a pandemic flu, and if they will need to bury bodies in their backyards.

Teeter cited an estimate that a pandemic could kill 11,000 people in Seattle in 6 weeks, well above the usual toll in a year. In talking about the threat, she said, "You just have to be kind of plain-spoken and out there for the public."

The business preparedness conference was sponsored by the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), publisher of the CIDRAP Web site, along with the US and Minnesota Chambers of Commerce.

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