Panel says coordination is priority in the local response to bird flu

WILLMAR -- If bird flu arrives in Kandiyohi County, coordination among those responsible for protecting public health will be critical, officials say.

WILLMAR -- If bird flu arrives in Kandiyohi County, coordination among those responsible for protecting public health will be critical, officials say.

To that end, a committee has been meeting each month to talk about preparedness and ensure key information is exchanged.

"By knowing who the players are and what their roles are, that will really help us. The plan needs to be flexible and broad," said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health.

How would mass vaccinations be carried out if there's a widespread outbreak of disease? What if quarantines become necessary? Are area hospitals prepared to handle a surge in sick patients? How can health agencies communicate quickly during a crisis?

These are some of the issues that the group -- which includes public health, hospital and medical clinic representatives -- has been hashing out over the past several months.


"We have been talking about all of this for over a year," said Jo DeBruycker of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

"We're trying to keep an array of resources on our landscape. We hope that this will serve us well should we need to utilize those skills," she said. "We're very mindful that what we know today might change tomorrow. You can't just be narrowly focused. Tomorrow you may have a whole new set of challenges."

Staying current with what's happening globally with bird flu is one of the group's priorities. By doing so, they can share up-to-date information with local providers, as well as help ensure that guidelines from agencies such as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health are being followed.

Surveillance will be critical in recognizing -- and quickly responding to -- infectious disease, Stehn said.

Local systems have been ramped up to carefully screen patients who report respiratory symptoms, especially if they've recently traveled to Southeast Asia, where bird flu is most prevalent.

The emergency department at Rice Memorial Hospital is consistently on the lookout for clusters of symptoms or potentially related cases that might signal some kind of outbreak, said Barb Piasecki, infection control nurse for the hospital.

As a sentinel site for the Minnesota Department of Health's statewide influenza surveillance program, Affiliated Community Medical Centers is on the front lines each winter, tracking cases that arrive in urgent care and testing to gain a snapshot of which germs and viruses are circulating in the community.

Last year this surveillance program was expanded to all 10 of Affiliated's regional clinics, DeBruycker said. "It gives us a much broader sense of what's happening in the region," she said.


Over the past few months, local providers have been making a point of educating travelers, particularly those who are going to Southeast Asia.

For instance, providers are warning travelers about the risks of open-air markets, farmyards and other places where there might be contact with sick birds or contaminated bird droppings.

Influenza vaccination also is being recommended for travelers.

By taking protective measures, it's hoped that travelers don't become the vector for bringing bird flu to the United States.

If phone calls are any indication, the public is aware of the potential for a pandemic, said Stacey Zondervan, patient services supervisor for Family Practice Medical Center.

"Certainly it is on people's radar screens," she said.

The committee has already begun to address some specific issues, such as how to handle any stockpiling of Tamiflu, an antiviral medication that helps reduce the severity of influenza and may help in treating bird flu as well.

One consensus they've already reached: Healthy individuals won't be getting any "just-in-case" prescriptions for Tamiflu.


"When you deplete those stores, then for the person who truly needs it, it's unavailable," DeBruycker said.

The group also is looking at the bigger regional picture.

"There's a lot of regional planning going on that local people are involved in," said Chery Johnson, assistant director of nursing for Kandiyohi County Public Health. "There's a lot of talk about surge capacity and how the region could be involved if a community were to get overwhelmed."

Educating the public will be one of the keys, whether it's dealing with bird flu or with any other infectious disease outbreak or public health threat, Stehn said. "One of the most critical things is for people to be thinking about themselves and their family and to be prepared."

Basic measures such as hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when they're ill are steps everyone can -- and should -- take to limit the spread of infectious disease, officials said.

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