swine flu has so far added 556 deaths to that number, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“My kids get a flu shot every year and they’ll get three this year,” Swanberg said. “As much as people fear vaccinations, the risk is small compared to getting an illness. It’s better to be safe than sorry and nobody really knows if N1H1 is going to be like the 1918 flu which had a mild beginning and then wiped out so many people the following year. We don’t know.”
Considered the mother of all influenzas, the 1918 influenza pandemic affected 500 million people, about one-third of the world’s population and resulted in 50 million to as many as 100 million deaths.
During April 19 through Aug. 19, 2009, the Washington State Department of Health received reports of 148 hospitalized and 12 confirmed deaths as a result of H1N1. Of the 12 deaths, two have occurred in pregnant women. So, while Swanberg has a cool head, she’s glad schools, the city of Seattle and Public Health of Seattle & King County are clearly erring on the side of caution.
Every Monday, officials with the Seattle’s office of Emergency Management (OEM) meets with leadership from the city’s police, fire and public works and public health departments to share updates, response, efficiency in delivering information and disaster preparedness. OEM director Barb Graff said that last spring there was not enough known about the strain and as a result, the CDC recommended that local public health officers take stringent measures such as closing schools should any sign of an outbreak occur. As the school year progresses, Graff said her department and others may ramp up the frequency of their meetings and continue to inform the public.
“When people are armed with good, solid information, they can make great choices,” she said. “This mayor and our Public Health director and the King County executive are trying to get as much information out there as possible.”
Public Health, for example, has created health campaigns about the flu, identified vulnerable populations, created a coalition among healthcare organizations to improve response times during health emergencies, produced hygiene posters that can be printed out and placed at schools or places of business, including a page on its Web site with information about the flu and fact sheets for schools and daycares. It has also increased the amount of local testing for H1N1.
Graff has three staff members who hold education sessions at schools, homeless shelters, food banks, social-service facilities and businesses. The OEM is facilitating the weekly interdepartmental
meetings on the flu and has created a 192-page preparedness and response plan for an influenza pandemic. It is also encouraging neighbor-to-neighbor support plans. In the spring, Graff noticed that in neighborhoods that faced school closures, parents of children living on the same block, for example, worked out a rotating day care plan to reduce the number of sick days parents had to take. That action, she said, was very effective in keeping kids apart. Her department is also working with Public Health on solutions at community centers and libraries, where kids tend to congregate when schools are closed.
School closures in King County are a joint decision among the particular school superintendent and Dr. David Fleming, director of Public Health Such was the case last spring when Fleming and Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Marie Goodloe-Johnson closed three Seattle schools.
Laura Burns of West Seattle, whose son, Max, is now a senior at the Center School alternative high school in Seattle Center, saw the school’s principal, Lisa Escobar, and administrators keep a close watch on students in the spring. Burns is the outgoing PTA president at Center School and volunteers at the front desk where she remembers administrators putting a large bottle of Purell. Every student passing by after lunch would take a few pumps, she said. The student body of about 300, she said, is very “savvy.”
“Touching your face, your mouth and your eyes is how you get the flu so you just keep your hands clean,” she said. “I think we have a very pragmatic staff that knows the most important thing is getting kids educated and keeping them safe and healthy.”
The CDC is working with a consortium of drug makers that are currently working on the delivery of 45 million doses of the vaccine. Public Health expects its share by mid-October, which it will then disperse. And serving pregnant women, according to Swanberg, is likely to be job one, along with administering shots to police, fire and paramedic staff.
Is it hypersensitivity on the parts of these organizations? Perhaps, but as Swanberg said, “You want to be prepared and the only way to be prepared is to get the vaccine whether it’s hype or not. You never know if it’s going to be a good year or a bad year.”