Health News

Manatee officials prepare for flu outbreak

MANATEE — State health officials confirmed no case of swine flu has yet appeared in Florida as of Monday, but the new influenza strain that has killed at least 149 people in Mexico has spurred local officials to action.

Local health and public safety officials are reviewing pandemic flu plans and notifying hospitals and physicians to be on alert for patients with flu-like symptoms.

That dialogue included Manatee County Chamber of Commerce and the county’s Emergency Operations Center, as well as its state counterpart, said John Burns, spokesman for the Manatee County Health Department.

Hospital officials were taking very seriously the national health alert issued Sunday as the number of cases in the United States doubled to 42 by late Monday afternoon.

“Blake Medical Center is closely monitoring this health concern as it develops,” said Sherry Wolabaugh, the hospital’s infection control specialist. “We have a plan in place for this type of situation, and have put our staff on alert for potential patients.”

Blake, like other area hospitals, is following Centers for Disease Control guidance, as well as directives from the Florida Department of Health for screening and testing of patients.

Manatee Memorial Hospital officials have increased surveillance for patients presenting with flu-like symptoms. Despite the increased surveillance, no suspect cases have yet emerged, hospital officials said.

Pinnacle Urgent Care Center has not seen an uptick in people with flu-like symptoms, said Dr. Joseph Soler, medical director.

Hospital and health officials from Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto counties met Monday morning to discuss swine flu and community response plans should cases of the swine influenza be confirmed here.

Sarasota County Emergency Management and the Sarasota County Health Department held a joint news conference late Monday to brief the public on the county’s preparedness plans for swine flu.

At the state level, Florida’s surgeon general, Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros, urged the public to be on the alert. Viamonte Ros has put the state plan into play.

“We have increased our surveillance and we’re telling doctors that since the flu season is waning, if they see patients with sudden onset high fever and a cough or sore throat, they should collect a specimen for testing,” Viamonte Ros said.

“Our state laboratories have the equipment necessary and our personnel are trained in identifying influenza samples. We have increased surveillance, alerted doctors and are working with our local health departments,” she said.

Other precautions include:

n All state laboratories are prepared to identify influenza samples.

n 100 sentinel physicians throughout Florida are on alert to report any unusual influenza like activity to state health officials and the CDC.

n DOH can monitor the sale of over-the-counter drugs as an early warning sign for increased influenza activity.

Swine influenza viruses are not transmitted by food and a person cannot get swine influenza from eating pork products, Viamente Ros said. The infections appear to spread from person to person.

Other precautions people should take include:

n People with respiratory illness should stay home from work or school to avoid spreading infections, including influenza, to others in the community.

n Avoid close contact with people who are coughing or otherwise appear ill.

n Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

n Wash hands frequently to lessen the spread of respiratory illness.

n People experiencing cough, fever and fatigue, possibly along with diarrhea and vomiting, should contact their physician.

n If you think you have influenza, call your health care provider and discuss whether you need to be seen in their office or emergency department or stay home.

Local airports also are on alert.

Sarasota Bradenton International Airport employees were briefed Monday to be on the alert for people who appeared to be sick, said Rick Piccolo, president and chief executive officer.

“We have obviously briefed our medical employees and our firefighters on how to respond if someone is sick,” he said. “The Transportation Security Administration is educating our screeners to be on the lookout for symptoms, and we are reviewing the procedures in case someone is sick.”

The local airport has no direct flights to or from Mexico. Piccolo said no flights were affected at this time.

Tampa International Airport administration was meeting with airlines and transportation security officials late Monday to detail protocols and policies for passenger and visitor traffic.

Tampa airport has a daily nonstop flight to and from Cancun, said Brenda Geoghagan, spokeswoman.

“The U.S. Customs and Border Protection who greet international travelers are the first line of defense,” said Geoghagan. “They are conducting passive surveillance not only at airports but at ports and any land crossings in and out of Mexico.”

Unlike the bird flu scare and the hoof and mouth outbreak, which were international alerts, the swine flu outbreak is also domestic within U.S. borders, Geoghagan said.

“The Transportation Security Administration is the first line of defense for domestic flights,” she said. “This is a different scenario than we have dealt with before.”

Airports cannot stop fights, only airlines can make those decisions, Geoghagan said.

“We are the landlords renting space to the carriers, the rental car companies and other businesses, and that’s why we are meeting with them to see what protocols we can put in place at TIA,” she said.

Geoghagan expects to release those protocols today.

“The message is we are aware,” she said. “We are discussing what we have to do to have the right protocol for Tampa.”

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