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Flu Pandemic Summit Discusses Citizen, City Roles

By Jackie Jadrnak
Journal Staff Writer
    Individuals and communities must be ready to take care of themselves if an influenza pandemic sweeps across the country.
    "We're asking people to think about the things they depend on— food, water, medicine, your psychiatrist— and ask, if there's a disruption in the supply chain, what would you do?" said Adm. John Agwunobi, assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
    He joined New Mexicans from around the state at a Pandemic Influenza Summit in Albuquerque on Tuesday. The state will get a little less than $1 million to update pandemic planning and hold exercises to see how those plans work.
    One of the warnings was that there's only so much the federal government would be able to do.
    "The challenge will be 50 states dealing with a Katrina-level emergency," all at the same time, for an extended period of time, said Dr. Cristina Beato, principal deputy assistant secretary for health.
    When people think of a pandemic, they often think about what would happen if they got sick with a virulent form of the flu, or how public health officials could help keep them from getting sick. But officials pointed out that, at the height of a pandemic, workplace absentee rates could be 40 percent.
    "You have to ask the question of what will happen when the schools close, food is not delivered, the phone system is down" because there's no one to maintain the equipment, said Til Jolly, with the U.S. Office of Homeland Security.
    The answers will have to be found at the local and state level— and some tribal officials in the audience pointed out that they need to be included in the planning, too.
    State epidemiologist C. Mack Sewell said the state has had a pandemic influenza response plan for 10 years. It was updated recently to comply with new federal requirements.
    The weaknesses he sees, Sewell said, include dealing with a surge of patients needing hospitalization and treatment and handling health concerns along the Mexican border.