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Manatee officials brace for flu outbreak

MANATEE — Swiftly and methodically, public health officials are activating their response plans should a case of swine flu be confirmed in Manatee County.

“Be Prepared” is the watchword, says John Burns, spokesman for the Manatee County Health Department.

“We want to urge personal preparedness, just as we do with hurricanes, but this is hurricane preparation on steroids,” Burns said. “Instead of preparing a three-day food supply, look into three weeks.”

Preparations are already underway at the county level as the health department begins to implement an “Incident Command Structure,” a standardized, on-scene, all-hazard incident management response protocol.

Dr. Gladys Branic, health department director, is at the helm. Branic and her staff are participating in multiple daily briefings via conference calls with state and federal health officials and other county health department directors.

Branic will address public concerns Friday at a forum called by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, at 9:30 a.m, County Commission Chambers, Manatee County Administrative Center, 1112 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

Buchanan will speak on the federal response.

Other panelists include Manatee County Emergency Management Director Laurie Feagans, Manatee School District Risk Manager Forrest Branscomb, Blake Medical Center CEO Daniel Friedrich and Manatee Memorial Hospital Chief Operating Officer Roy Orr.

The health department is working in tandem with the county’s Emergency Operations Center, hospitals, law enforcement and other public entities as the swine flu situation unfolds, Burns said. Those agencies include school officials.

Should swine flu cases be confirmed in Manatee, the health department would assess the situation and advise school officials if they felt schools should be closed, said Branscomb, the district’s risk manager who has a master’s degree in public health.

“Based on the health department assessment, the request to close a school or multiple schools would come in through Superintendent Tim McGonegal, who would then consult with the school board and respond,” Branscomb said.

“If we do have a large pandemic and it is virulent, the schools will be closed early compared to a lot of other organizations because the district is a big hub of activity involving such a large number of people,” he added.

On Monday, Branscomb began sending out communications to staff on preventative measures. School nurses are promoting hand washing and have stepped up surveillance of students to catch those that might be ill as early as possible.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Branscomb’s office had taken a few calls from parents and staff. One unidentified school was concerned because a student who had gone to Mexico on a cruise was not feeling well. The parents were told to keep the child home and monitor the symptoms.

Staying home when ill is imperative, Branscomb said.

“We are telling students and staff that they should stay home for seven days after the first day they experience flu-like symptoms. They may be symptom-free, but they could still be infective. If we identify a student with a temperature of 100 degrees or more, we call the parents and say pick up your child. That’s normal procedure.”

The same precautions apply to adults, Branscomb said.

“Don’t come to work if you are sick,” he warned.

The school district is now sharing attendance data with the health department, Branscomb said.

“We have seen no shift in attendance records yet,” he said. “School systems are a great surveillance population because we employ a lot of people and serve a lot of kids. We are using that to the best of our ability.”

The district is also fine-tuning its Pandemic Flu Plan, first drafted two years ago, Branscomb added.

“We have a lot of pre-planning done, sample letters, communication strategies with parents and the community, what we need to do if schools are needed for use as additional medical facilities and what we have to do when the crisis is over to get the school back in operation,” Branscomb said.

A lot of that plan involved human resource policies, such as the use of sick time, vacation time, pay and other matters should employees have to stay home.

The CDC recommends businesses and organizations also have response plans for how they would conduct business if they had to tell staff to stay home or curtail interaction with the public. But wearing masks in the workplace is not one of CDC’s recommendations. Evidence is not that strong that wearing of protective masks effectively limits the outbreak of viral diseases, said Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control.

Nonetheless, the sale of face masks, as well as antiviral drugs and hand sanitizers, has risen sharply since swine flu surfaced last weekend, reports Bloomberg.com.

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