State, county gear up for potential swine flu outbreak

With at least 40 cases of the newest version of swine flu reported in the United States in the past week and more than 100 deaths from it in Mexico, officials across the country, including those in Yavapai County, aren't taking any chances.

"Our phones have been ringing off the walls this morning with people afraid and concerned," Robert Resendes said Monday. Resendes is director of Yavapai County Community Health Services.

He said the federal government is releasing its stockpiles of Tamiflu, and Yavapai County expects to get its supply - complete with a police escort as mandated by federal law - by Saturday.

"We're as prepared as we can be," Resendes said Monday evening.

Tamiflu is an anti-viral medication that can shorten the duration and intensity of flu symptoms, but not prevent it.

So far federal instructions are that only people suspected of or confirmed with having the virus can get the federal Tamiflu supplies, Resendes said.

On Sunday, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano declared a public health emergency in the United States because of the current swine flu outbreak. Such a declaration allows the government to release money to pay for the public health response to the outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control cautioned that its recommendation for using anti-viral drugs will change as officials learn more about the new virus.

"Influenza is predictably unpredictable," said Dr. Karen Lewis, medical director for the Arizona Department of Health Service's immunization program and a 20-year expert in influenza viruses.

As of Monday night, Arizona had no confirmed cases of the new swine flu.

But, Lewis said, "I would be surprised if we didn't see some cases." She added that she expects some of them might even be severe.

Meanwhile, county health officials here are talking to school officials about what to do in case the virus does reach Yavapai County and schools need to close, as they have in New York. Resendes said any final decision to close a school is up to the school district.

In addition, YCCHS has placed all of its staff and its Medical Reserve Corps on alert.

YCCHS also met Monday with its internal Threat Assessment Group to map out a local response should the virus show up here.

Yavapai County health officials also spoke with CDC and state health officials during a Monday conference call to discuss the situation.

"We're also upping our ability to do testing," Resendes said. He explained that the county has arranged with a courier service to take nasal swabs to Phoenix for testing instead of mailing them in.

He said his office has alerted local doctors to the situation, and they know when and how to do the special testing. If a patient tests positive for the influenza virus A, then the doctor will insert a long swab up inside the patient's nose to collect DNA. The swab then goes to the state for testing to see if it's the new swine flu. The new flu is a combination of swine, human and bird viruses.

Meanwhile, Resendes said, people shouldn't panic.

But, he and Lewis stressed, they should start washing their hands throughout the day and not just after using the bathroom.

That's because people can leave viruses on things like phones, door handles and keyboards. And while the virus doesn't penetrate your skin, it can get into your system if you get it on your hands and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes.

People should take other sensible precautions such as covering their mouths with a tissue or with their elbow crook when they cough or sneeze.

And, said Lewis, increasing your personal space isn't a bad idea, either.

That means standing farther away from people in case they sneeze or cough because it's the tiny bits of spit - or infected droplets - that carry the virus.

"Dodge the saliva," Lewis stressed.

Using hand sanitizers throughout the day is also wise, she said, because the alcohol-based ones can kill influenza viruses.

Lewis said no one knows whether this influenza outbreak is "the big one" that a lot of people have been worried about. They do strike in cycles, she said, and the country hasn't had major outbreak in decades.

The reason experts are keeping a close eye on this new strain is because of who it's hitting.

Usually with seasonal influenza, the people who tend to get sick are the young and the old or those who are ill already, Lewis said.

"But (Mexico was) seeing more illness in healthy young adults," she added. And so far in the United States, the age range of those with the swine flu is between 7 and 54, she said.

For more information on the swine flu, visit the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/swineflu.