WILLMAR -- County commissioners from around the state were told Tuesday to talk to and continue to support their local public health departments to help prepare for future health disaster, like the avian flu virus.
During a statewide video conference with the Minnesota Department of Health, county commissioners were also told to review their disaster plan and practice putting the plan into action.
The advice was included in an update on what the state Health Department learned from its response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and what the department is doing to prepare for a possible flu pandemic.
"Your local public health department needs your help," said Dr. Harry Hull, state epidemiologist. County health departments have been underfunded for years as needs and demands have increased, said Hull.
The threat of a flu outbreak could tax those departments even more without adequate preparation.
Hull said a flu pandemic could be a year or two away, or it may never happen at all. Despite daily news that "the sky is falling, the sky is falling," Hull said, "the sky is not falling -- yet." But he said it would be a good idea to "have an umbrella" close by.
Hull said based on the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 that killed from 25 million to 100 million people worldwide, a new flu epidemic "has the potential to overwhelm the health care system" in the United States. He said it's estimated 25 percent of the population in the United States would get ill.
There's little or no vaccine available, a limited supply of antiviral medication and an existing shortage of nurses, said Hull.
"What, specifically, do we need to do?" asked Amy Wilde, Meeker County Commissioner.
Aggie Leitheiser, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness with the Minnesota Department of Health, said preparations for a flu outbreak include identifying isolation rooms and facilities for sick people when local hospitals get full; determining how to recruit additional health care providers, including identifying licensed nurses in the county that may not be practicing; and determining how to take care of sick people in their homes.
Medical facilities and county health departments may also consider stockpiling gowns, face masks and medications to prepare for a potential outbreak. Having a pandemic strike in three to five years will allow the country to be "better prepared than if it hit now," said Hull. There is currently not enough antiviral medication manufactured. Hull said it will take a "number of years" before there's an adequate supply made and stockpiled. He warned against buying drugs on the Internet that claimed to be for avian flu.
Hull said if a severe flu virus does strike and there's an adequate supply of vaccine, everyone in Minnesota could be vaccinated in one week. When asked if that was a feasible plan, Hull said when he worked with the World Health Organization they were able to vaccinate 140 million children in one day. Vaccinating 5 million people in one week "doesn't seem like a big number to me," he said.
Currently, there are only experimental vaccines available for the bird flu, said Hull.
Health care providers aren't the only ones who would be affected by a flu outbreak. Hull encouraged county commissioners to talk to local businesses about their plans for dealing with a work force that might become ill, or be required to stay home with children if schools are closed.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is also working with poultry producers to monitor a possible bird flu. A county commissioner from Chippewa County asked if that educational material was being passed on to the farm workers.
Leitheiser said Minnesota learned some lessons during a 36-hour process to receive 5,000 residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina at Camp Ripley. Even though the facility was never used, the preparation process was useful in identifying good things the state has in place and what it needs to improve to be adequately prepared for a future disaster, she said.
Kandiyohi County Commissioner Richard Falk said the video conference was a valuable exchange of information from the state department to local officials. "We need updates like this," he said. Commissioners Richard Larson and Dean Shuck of Kandiyohi County were also at the video conference site at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building in Willmar.