Bird Flu Alarm

2006-01-27-Preparations underway in New York state for bird flu pandemic

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-01-27-Preparations underway in New York state for bird flu pandemic

ALBANY, N.Y. -- A statewide emergency bird flu plan will be released in the coming weeks and preparations for a pandemic are already underway across New York state, according to state health officials.

As part of the state's ongoing planning for a health crisis, each of state's eight regional medical centers will be able to handle an influx of up to 500 patients by August.

The centers could make space by canceling elective surgeries, setting up makeshift treatment areas and coordinating with neighboring hospitals to handle any overflow, Deputy Health Commissioner Dennis Whalen said.

"It's very much a question of utilizing the existing infrastructure rather than inventing new systems," Whalen said.

A flu virus currently circulating among birds, the H5N1 virus, has ravaged poultry stocks in Asia since 2003 and recently spread to Europe through migratory birds. Health authorities fear the disease could mutate into a form that spreads from person-to-person, sparking a flu pandemic that could kill millions of people.

According to the World Health Organization, 83 people have died of the disease since 2003.

The mounting concerns have had health officials in New York stepping up emergency preparations.

In November, the state Health Department performed its first mass vaccination exercise by administering flu shots to 2,000 state employees over five hours. Similar trials are being carried out by county health departments as well, said Gus Birkhead, director of the Center for Community Health at the state Health Department.

Local health agencies are also identifying public spaces that could be used to house large gatherings of people who have fallen ill.

"We look at the Superdome as an example _ people naturally went there when Hurricane Katrina happened. We want a plan that identifies those type of locations," Birkhead said.

New York state has been preparing for health emergencies linked to bioterrorism and SARS for several years, Whalen said. The bird flu is just another type of emergency the system must take into account, he said.

Hospitals would not only have to identify beds for a surge of patients in a flu crisis, but also figure out how to cover for sick staff, said Scott Heller, director of the regional resource center at Albany Medical Center.

"This is another phase of the ongoing planning we have to think about," Heller said.

Albany Medical Center is one of the eight regional resource centers in the state required to supply a surge capacity of 500 beds for every 1 million people in the case of an emergency.

The other regional resource centers are Erie County Medical Center, Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, University Hospital SUNY Health Science Center in Syracuse, CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh, Westchester Medical Center, North Shore Medical Center and Manhasset Stony Brook University Hospital.

A national report by the American College of Emergency Physicians last month found much of the nation was ill prepared for the bird flu. New York state received an overall C+ grade for its emergency care system, slightly higher than the C- rating given to the nation as a whole.

The state got low marks for its ratio of board-certified emergency room doctors to 100,000 people and emergency departments for every 1 million people.

Understanding Avian Influenza