Hospitals ask #8216;what if#039; with pandemic training

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 12, 2006


In July 2006, a 68-year-old man walks into L.V. Stabler Memorial Hospital with a heavy cough and congestion in his lungs and a sore throat. Physicians run a rapid series of tests and their fears are soon confirmed. The Bird Flu - which started circling the globe a few months earlier - has finally made its way to Alabama. The news is broadcast across the state and people start to panic, inundating hospitals and clinics in a mad rush to head off the deadly virus before it strikes them or their loved ones. The National Guard is mobilized. Cities like Greenville, Montgomery, and Andalusia are locked down.

The above may seem like Hollywood's version of Armageddon, but L.V. Stabler nurses, doctors and administrators spent Tuesday morning in a tabletop exercise discussing a very real and threatening possibility; what if the highly fatal avian influenza makes the dreaded leap from birds to humans?

One word:

Pandemic. A worldwide health disaster resulting in millions of deaths.

&#8220Worst case scenario? We'd be overwhelmed,” said Ran Merritt, Director of Marketing for the hospital.

Pandemics have occurred throughout history. The last one was in 1968-69 when the &#8220Hong Kong Flu” killed 34,000 people in the United States alone. 10 years earlier the &#8220Asian Flu” killed 70,000 people in the U.S. and in 1918-19, 25 million people died across the world, their bodies ravaged by the quickly mutating &#8220Spanish Flu” which resulted in communities having to bury their dead in mass graves.

In historical terms, we're long overdue for a pandemic. And in today's world of airplanes and interstates no city or town would be isolated from the effects of a deadly flu virus. While there have been reports of some human-to-human transmission of bird flu, the virus is still primarily transmitted through animals - namely chickens and birds.

Tuesday's tabletop exercise was designed to initiate discussion regarding how hospitals across the state would function in the event of a pandemic. During the exercise, a flu outbreak scenario unfolded via the Internet and a moderator directed questions to the individual hospitals and organizations participating. Along with L.V. Stabler staff, health officials and facilities from Baldwin, Clarke, Conecuh, Choctaw, Escambia, Mobile, Washington, Monroe, and Wilcox Counties also took part in the exercise.

County officials will conduct a similar experiment on Thursday at the Greenville – Butler County Public Library, according to County EMA Bob Luman.

&#8220The main thing is this gets everyone talking so we can get a plan together,” he said.

Luman said the government's SNS (Strategic National Stockpile) plan, required by the federal government following 9-11, could be adapted to apply to a pandemic situation. SNS is designed to deliver medicine and necessary personnel quickly to an affected area in the event of a bio-terrorist attack.

CDC officials estimate that at least 50 percent of the nation's workforce could be effected during a pandemic, and that includes hospitals where critical personnel could be forced to stay at home, either because they have the flu or because they're caring for a sick family member. Or, like anyone else, they don't want to contract the flu themselves. Add to that the daily operations of dealing with car accident victims in the emergency room and regular patients in need, and the hospital could quickly become overtaxed to the point of inefficiency.

In an extreme situation, there wouldn't be enough beds to hold the patients and Luman said the county is preparing a plan to open a special &#8220medical needs shelter” that could handle patient overflow in the event a severe pandemic.