Health officials gather to plan against flu outbreak |

Health officials gather to plan against flu outbreak

Eben Harrell

Cover your mouth when you cough. Wash your hands. And if that doesn’t work, don’t panic, because yesterday officials from local and state governments and health institutions held their first meeting about how to handle a potential outbreak of influenza.

The group, called the Influenza Incident Management Group, is headed by Pitkin County public health director Yvonne Hernandez. It was formed in October when federal health officials announced a shortage of flu vaccine.

While most people think of flu as an inconvenience, rare outbreaks of the disease can blanket populations and inflict large numbers of fatalities, especially among the young, the elderly and the chronically ill. One such pandemic killed more people in 1918 than all of the battles in World War I.

“I’m hoping that all this will be a drill,” Hernandez told the 20 or so health officials. “But because of the vaccine shortage, it’s a good idea to meet like this.”

“We have people to visit from all over, and then when they get here they are crammed into this small town, so we are at risk,” physician Morris Cohen added.

The group included representatives from Pitkin and Eagle counties, Aspen Valley Hospital, and state health agencies. Yesterday, they determined how to monitor the number of flu cases in Pitkin County.

County officials will use the number of cases reported from local doctors and absences from local schools as measuring posts. The “trigger level” at which the group will declare an outbreak has yet to be determined.

One difficulty facing the group, its members agreed, is that flu is often indistinguishable from the common cold. For that reason, individuals with flu-like symptoms should seek testing. A rapid testing system, employed by physicians and emergency rooms, can detect influenza within a few hours.

The group also agreed to launch a public information program on how to contain the spread of the virus. “Cover your Cough” posters, instructing sick people to cough into the corner of their elbow instead of their hands, will be put up in public buildings and possibly local buses. Businesses will be encouraged to supply hand sanitizer to its employees.

A program to encourage patients to self-quarantine if testing positive for flu will also be implemented. Eagle County, for example, is considering reimbursing individuals and businesses with sick pay if employees test positive for the flu.

Hernandez said she will set up a response plan based on input from yesterday’s meeting. The incident management group will likely not meet again until Hernandez’s plan has been drafted later this winter.

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is

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