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Agencies consider impact of bird flu outbreak
Bob Keller, director of the McLean County Health Department, discusses scenarios with a panel of about 50 emergency response leaders in the community in the event of an influenza pandemic. (Pantagraph/LORI ANN COOK)

BLOOMINGTON - A local outbreak of bird flu among humans would involve hundreds of emergency, public health and other public workers in McLean County to control an illness capable of putting thousands in the hospital.

Representatives from 29 agencies gathered Thursday at the DoubleTree Hotel and Conference Center to conduct a "tabletop exercise" to prepare them for a potential outbreak.

About 50 business and public safety officials rolled up their sleeves and delved into a scenario that included a confirmed case of the H7N2 strain of influenza virus.

The exercise began with a child's illness. A week before, a plane landed at Central Illinois Regional Airport from Orland, Fla. with several passengers complaining of flu symptoms.

McLean County Public Health Department's Cathy Covertson-Anderson acted as facilitator for the roundtable discussion that included school superintendents, college health officials, state and local police and social service workers.

Anderson led the group through the progression of a fictitious situation that opened with an 8-year-old student from Bloomington District 87 whose flu was diagnosed as a dangerous and contagious variety.

A public information center was established during the exercise to train communication officers from private companies and public bodies on how information would be disseminated during an epidemic. Two mock press conferences were held to provide volunteers with the real-life experience of dealing with the news media.

The need to provide accurate information to the public is essential to handling an epidemic, Keller told participants.

"One of the critical things about a … flu epidemic is the risk information that goes out to the public," said the health department director.

School and private business leaders were asked to consider how they would handle news that a worker or student was ill with the disease. Decisions would have to be made on when to quarantine and isolate sick persons and their family members.

Among the precautions health officials would pass along to the public would be a need for "social distancing" from those infected with the pandemic flu and basic precautions, such as hand washing, said Keller.

Special circumstances will come into play during an epidemic. For example, 20 percent of the inmates of the

McLean County jail could become ill. Family asked to remain at home must have access to food. And businesses could be forced to close their doors.

Results of the exercise will be analyzed and used to improve plans in the event the county is faced with an actual epidemic.

Flu facts

The McLean County Health Department estimates that if there were an avian flu pandemic among humans, there could be:

• 23,000 to 55,300 cases in McLean County.

• As many as 70,000 people needing treatment as outpatients at hospitals.

• As many as 13,000 admitted to hospitals.

• More than 3,000 people who would die.

SOURCE: McLean County Health Department; Compiled by Edith Brady-Lunny

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