Health officials assess flu threat

By Steve Karnowski

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Some 30,000 Minnesotans could die if a flu pandemic strikes the United States, health officials warned Wednesday at the first of the emergency planning summits the federal government will hold in each state.

"Pandemics happen," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said at a summit that drew about 200 state and local officials. "They have happened in the past, and they will happen in the future. When it comes to pandemics, we are overdue and underprepared."

The summits are aimed at getting business leaders and state, county, city, school and tribal officials on the same page as they make their plans for how they'll respond whenever a pandemic does strike.


Leavitt and other officials cited a sobering set of statistics for Minnesota. They said they're operating on the assumption that in a pandemic, 1.5 million Minnesotans will get sick, 750,000 will require medical care, 165,000 will require hospitalization, and 30,000 will die.

Minnesota has just over 16,000 licensed hospital beds.

Federal and state officials are gearing up because of an outbreak in Asia of a virulent form of bird flu. According to the World Health Organization, there have been 138 confirmed human cases as of Wednesday, including 71 deaths, and the outbreak has required the killing of millions of chickens and other poultry in Asia. The outbreak has not reached the United States.

That flu strain, H5N1, does not pass easily from animals to humans, but officials are concerned because flu viruses mutate easily. They fear this strain could evolve into one that would ignite a global human pandemic.

The audience went silent as Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed an animated depiction of how a pandemic could spread from Thailand to America and to Minnesota. It started with a few red dots marking cases on a map of Thailand. The dots soon engulfed the country in red. Dots then started showing up on maps of the United States and Minnesota, where they spread out from the Twin Cities and other communities. Soon the entire state and country were awash in red.

Nationwide, she said, 30 percent of the population might become ill from a flu pandemic, or 90 million people. She said half of them would seek medical care, 865,000 might be hospitalized, and from 200,000 to close to 2 million people might die depending on how severe the strain is.

Leavitt told the gathering that the federal government will provide all the help it can, but he said most of the response will have to be carried out at the local level.

"No nation on earth, no community on earth, can ignore this threat," Leavitt said.


Local officials who spoke said they are developing plans for coping with huge numbers of sick people at a time when communities all over the country face the same crisis. They'll also have to look at closing schools, canceling public events, even calling off church services, and they'll need to decide ahead of time how they'll tell residents to protect themselves, speakers said.

George Gerlach, administrator of the Granite Falls Municipal Hospital, said he's been told to expect three to five times his hospital's normal "surge capacity," and to be prepared to deal with that kind of patient load for three to seven months.

Tim Turnbull, the emergency preparedness director for Hennepin County, the state's most populous, said local governments will have to be able to keep functioning at the height of a pandemic. He said his people have projected that up to 40 percent of county workers might not show up because they're sick, caring for sick people or afraid.

Leavitt and other federal officials said Minnesota was chosen for the first summit because it's a national leader in public health and in preparing for pandemic flu, words of praise that drew a cautionary note from Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"We are eternal optimists in Minnesota, but today is not about hoping for the best, it is about planning for the worst," Pawlenty said.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Leavitt said the numbers he presented on Minnesota were based on current capabilities for responding to an outbreak and on studies of the global "Spanish flu" pandemic of 1918, which killed more than 500,000 people in the United States. He said the basic biology of influenza hasn't changed since then.

Leavitt said a vaccine has been developed that provides some immunity to the H5N1 strain, but that the U.S. stockpile is enough to treat only 1.8 million people so far -- far short of what's needed to protect the entire country.

Developing the technology and manufacturing capacity to produce enough vaccine within six months to protect 300 million Americans against H5N1 or future strains will take another three to five years, he said.


On the Net:

Official U.S. government site on pandemic flu and avian influenza:

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