Bird Flu Alarm

2006-01-01-Hospitals prepare for avian flu outbreak

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-01-01-Hospitals prepare for avian flu outbreak

By Alan Zibel
Baltimore Business Journal

Maryland's hospitals are ramping up their emergency response plans and buying supplies in preparation for the possibility that avian influenza could strike the United States.

Public health officials worry that the H5N1 avian influenza virus, which has killed millions of birds and more than 70 people in Asia, will mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans. The World Health Organization says a worldwide outbreak of influenza is more likely now than at any time in nearly 40 years.

Maryland's hospitals in the coming months will receive $7 million in federal funding to help prepare for disasters, said Frank Monius, an assistant vice president with the Maryland Hospital Association.

A portion of that money will pay for additional supplies of masks, facial shields, gowns, sterile gloves and antibiotics that would be needed in the event of a flu pandemic.

It's a good idea for hospitals to stock up on such supplies now, Monius said, because there's likely to be a rush to buy them if there is a confirmed case in which avian flu is transmitted from one person to another.

"If and when that happens, all hell is going to break loose," Monius said.

Much of this planning, however, is similar to the kind of preparations hospitals have been undertaking since the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Preparations for bioterrorism and anthrax attacks all have much in common with those for avian flu, hospital officials say.

"We've tried to gear up so that what's good for one event can be used for other events as well," said Dr. Harold Standiford, medical director for infection control at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Hospitals in the University of Maryland Medical System have used their grant funding to purchase heated tents that can be set up outside a hospital to provide additional bed capacity during a crisis, Standiford said. In the event of a flu outbreak, those tents could be used to identify influenza patients before they enter the hospital.

"We have to be ready whether it happens to be this avian influenza...or another strain," Standiford said. "It can still be devastating."

The University of Maryland, Baltimore's law school on Jan. 13 will hold a symposium to discuss potential responses to an avian flu outbreak. The university's Center for Vaccine Development is one of three sites in the country performing human tests on a new avian flu vaccine.

Michael Greenberger, a law professor and director of UMB's Center for Health and Homeland Security, said there has not yet been enough discussion among experts about how best to respond to avian flu.

"If there were a pandemic flu of the kind that is predicted by many experts, it would have a very serious impact," Greenberger said. "That would be a heavy burden on the public health infrastructure."

One of the key questions in disaster planning is whether there will be enough hospital beds to accommodate a sudden surge of patients.

Dr. Julie Casani, the state health department's director of public health preparedness, said Maryland hospitals have the capacity to add roughly 9,000 more emergency beds to the statewide capacity of about 10,300 beds.

They can do so, she said, by putting beds in hallways, changing outpatient units into inpatient ones, adding trailers or tents and packing more patients into rooms.

Understanding Avian Influenza