Columbia County and state health officials met Wednesday to plan for an anticipated outbreak of the H1N1 virus.
The H1N1 virus, often called swine flu, first appeared in the United States in April and has since infected people in all 50 states, said Jonathan Adriano, the deputy director of planning and risk communications in the Office of Bio-Terrorism/Emergency Preparedness for the state Division of Health's East Central District.
The purpose of the meeting was to amend plans already in place to deal with the flu season, which runs from October through May, and include a county response to a potential H1N1 virus outbreak.
"This is a new situation for everybody," Adriano said. "This has taken off almost like wildfire. Everybody that comes into contact with this virus has the potential to get this virus. It is brand new, so that makes everybody susceptible."
As of Sept. 3, the virus had hospitalized 9,079 people nationwide and 593 victims died, Adriano said.
The committee discussed recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control on educating the public and administering the H1N1 vaccine, which is expected to arrive in October or November.
"Getting (the vaccine) out to the public is going to be spotty," Adriano said. "What's been happening so far is the Southeast is being hit much harder than the rest of the country with H1N1. It may be due to our schools opening up before the rest of the country. ... I think for the Southeast, because we are seeing activity before the rest of the country, we may see the lion's share (of the first phase of the vaccine release)."
Linda Graves, the manager of the Columbia County Health Department, said the vaccine, when it is distributed, will be provided free to those at a high risk for complications. That includes ages 6 months to 24 years old, caregivers of infants, pregnant women, health care and emergency personnel, and those with chronic conditions that could cause complications, including diabetes and asthma.
"The virus is not producing extreme severity," Adriano said, adding that everyone should still get their annual seasonal flu vaccine. "It looks and acts like a mild seasonal flu."
The H1N1 virus is affecting more young people, while seasonal flu typically causes complications in people older than 65. The virus spreads just like seasonal flu and has the same symptoms -- fever, sore throat, muscle aches, cough, runny nose and extreme fatigue.
Adriano suggests protecting against infection with frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizers that contain at least 68 percent alcohol. Avoid contact with people who are showing symptoms.
Most people with the H1N1 virus have recovered without anti-viral medications and with rest and other at-home remedies for flu-like symptoms.
Lisa Whitlock, head nurse for Columbia County schools, said parents of sick children are encouraged to keep them out of school not only until the fever breaks, but until symptoms improve.
"Really, if you get it, stay at home," Whitlock said, adding that attendance is only about 1 percent lower than the average daily attendance. "That's what we're doing in the schools, and we've been very successful."
Officials at the meeting discussed methods of administering the vaccine, once it arrives, and ways to contact those in the high-risk group, and how to handle a large number of absences from work.
"This meeting is really to help Columbia County start coordinating plans with EMA, (and) with the health department, to figure out how we are going to work together if we get a huge increase in activity," Adriano said.
When it arrives, vaccines will be available from the health department and possibly private physicians and eventually through retail pharmacies.
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