On the bright side, a flu pandemic - a global, infectious disease outbreak - would kill only 175 or so people in Columbia County if it were only as bad as the 1968 Hong Kong Flu. Or four times that number would die if the outbreak were as widespread as the 1918 Spanish Flu.
Scary enough? There's more. The toll of a pandemic wouldn't just be in lives lost, but in lives and businesses that come to a screeching halt as public health authorities try to keep a lid on an outbreak.
Gary Zgutowicz, emergency preparedness director for the East Central Georgia Health District, laid out a worrisome case for local officials at a session this week held at Columbia County Emergency Management headquarters. But just making the case is a good start to prevention.
The visit was part of an overall planning effort in all 13 of the district's counties, designed to kick-start each community into preparing its own plans for dealing with a large-scale public health emergency.
Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker says various agencies will use information from the session to create preparedness plans for their area. "The long-term goal is to get all of those plans back to me so that a single, county-wide plan can be assembled and eventually tested through an exercise," Tucker says.
Such plans are a necessity. Zgutowicz and public health officials say the possibility of an outbreak is a "when," not an "if." The certainty largely is based on fears that the Asian Bird Flu, already a killer in some countries, could mutate and become transmitted human to human.
Ultimately, as Zgutowicz quoted another official as saying, everyone would like the money and time spent on such preparation to be a complete waste. It's like a fire-sprinkler system in a business: It is essential to have, but no one wants it to actually be used.
Some of the details will be unavoidably controversial, sparking spirited debate. For example, Zgutowicz says the government is expected to have on hand only a third, at most, of the number of flu-treatment medicines that would be dispensed in an outbreak. Who would get them? Who would be denied? Who would decide?
And how would the community cope with what local officials learned at this session: That schools could close for six months, and nearly two-thirds of the workforce would be forced to stay home. The cost could be staggering.
That's what all the planning is for, and local officials - led by Tucker, who is emphatically acknowledged as the community's preparedness guru - will soon put those details together.
It's bound to be a solid, thorough plan - and one we hope never has to be used.
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