February 23, 2007

Gannett Prepares for Possible Flu Outbreak

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In a planning draft from last May, Gannett Health Services painted the following picture of what it expects to face if the avian flu reaches the World Health Organization’s Phase 6 — Pandemic: “Assume spread to all areas of US within weeks of first U.S. case.

Government agencies overwhelmed and cannot offer assistance. No vaccine for up to four months, inadequate supplies of antiviral medications.”

If the flu hits mid-semester, Cornell would close and send students home. In the worst-case scenario, 2,000 students would remain on campus; 1,000 of those would become sick, 200 would be hospitalized and 40 would die.

So far the avian flu has only reached Phase 3. A subtype of the virus is causing disease in humans, but there is no human-to-human transmission. Mike Powers, director of operations for University Communications, believes that human-to-human transition will be the cause of the pandemic.

“If it starts, it’ll go rapidly,” said Powers. “That’s when it becomes scary.”
Although it may seem like an impossibility, Powers stressed the serious possibility of a pandemic.

“We could have something start tomorrow,” Powers said.

Powers is a member of the Pandemic Flu Working Group formed last March by Executive Vice President of Finance and Administration Steve Golding and Vice President Susan Murphy. The group plans on delivering a final report to the Executive Committee on Campus Health and Safety by July 1.

Associate Director for Gannett Health Services Sharon Dittman, another member of the Pandemic Flu Working Group, compared the current planning to placing a flashlight and a first-aid kit in a car. The challenge, she said, is making the time, setting aside the resources and having the will to face the reality.

“It’s very important, it’s just not in our faces right now,” said Dittman. She believes that people are realizing the seriousness of this issue. “From the small local health department to the international health organization, people have been moving this issue up over the last couple of years,” she said.

The last major pandemic, “Spanish Flu,” hit in September 1918 and killed 50 million people. According to a press release, Cascadilla Hall was converted into a temporary hospital to house the overflow from the Cornell infirmary and the annex of Sage College. By November, 900 students were being cared for, and 37 had died.

After the 1918 pandemic, the Cornell Board of Trustees credited volunteers from Ithaca and nearby towns for preventing a serious plight. Medical students spent so much time in the wards that the Ithaca division of the medical college suspended lessons.

As the planning committee prepares for the avian flu pandemic, they may look to people to take on new roles once again. With up to 50 percent of the workforce anticipated to be sick for up to three weeks, the committee must figure out how to deliver essential services such as dining, housing, transportation, counseling and communication.

“The big question is, ‘How do you provide services?’” said Powers. “The logistics of this are enormous. We will ask people to take on other roles and work long hours if they can.”

“It’s going to be one of those things where everybody needs to step up,” Dittman said.

Gannett would also call on various resources in order to maintain constant operations. Dittman said that they would call on local doctors outside of the medical field and veterinary school clinicians and would open facilities in the College of Veterinary Medicine, Schoellkopf facilities and Barton Hall. Dittman said she would not be surprised to see President Skorton working in the clinic if that is where he could be the greatest help.

“He’s been very articulate in his encouragement,” said Dittman.

Dittman also said that Cornell is fortunate to have the facility and staff resources available to it. Powers agreed, stating that Cornell may be an important resource for the local area.

“Cornell has a responsibility to the people in this town,” Powers said.

Part of the planning is also focusing on what can be done right now. Gannett has especially focused on raising awareness about personal hygiene, risk reduction, and receiving the current flu vaccine. Dittman says that such precautions are important every year, but with the possibility of a pandemic looming it is especially crucial now.
As Powers explained, “The first goal is to protect people; to keep them from getting ill.”