Columbia County is prepared if the ongoing flu outbreak threatens residents, an emergency official said this week.
The planning began two years ago, when local, state and private sector emergency officials started preparing for a potential pandemic.
"It is not new. We're not shocked at all," said Pam Tucker, the director of Columbia County's Emergency and Operations Division said of the outbreak of the H1N1 Virus, commonly called Swine Flu, in the U.S. "In fact, all the pre-planning has been so effective, for me personally, this is not nearly as bad as what it could be."
Swine Flu is no different from seasonal flu except that it is a new virus for which there is no vaccine. That means it is up to residents to keep themselves safe from the outbreak.
"A lot of it is in our own power as what happens to our health," Tucker said. "It is all about not spreading the virus. I can't remind people enough about washing hands, for their protection and for everybody's protection."
Tucker said two main behaviors will help keep residents safe if the virus outbreak touches the area. Lots and lots of handwashing or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and keeping a distance from those showing flu-like symptoms are the best lines of defense.
The seasonal flu kills about 36,000 Americans every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And if a pandemic outbreak of the H1N1 virus does occur, Tucker said it would likely kill about 175 Columbia County residents if it were as bad as the 1968 outbreak of Hong Kong Flu, or about 700 people if the outbreak is as widespread as the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
The CDC reported this past week that more than 100 confirmed cases of the virus have been reported in 16 states, including Georgia and South Carolina. The largest clusters are in New York, California and Texas, where the first U.S. death -- a 23-month-old toddler -- was reported Wednesday.
Citizens should be concerned, Tucker said, but not alarmed.
Emergency officials are watching the situation closely. The emergency plan sets out how county and other agencies will deal with up to 30 percent of the workforce being out sick or caring for sick family members, closed schools and limited vaccine availability.
Tucker said that response will include possibly closing schools, encouraging residents to avoid travel and large gatherings and to voluntarily distance themselves from others and to prepare for long-term home stays by having supplies on hand.
The plan also calls for ways to keep medical personnel healthy, locations and staffing for medical sites secondary to hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices, and plans to get vaccines once they are available.
For information, visit www.columbiacountyga.org or www.cdc.gov/swineflu/.
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