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Utah News

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Utah pursues preparedness in a pandemic

By Debbie Hummel
Associated Press
If an influenza pandemic as severe as that of 1918 were to hit Utah today, it's possible more than a million Utahns would become ill and 4,000 people would die in a year, according to a state report.
It's a sobering statistic but one that Utah's top disaster responders, along with leaders from the business, medical and volunteer services communities, are pondering a lot these days, along with dozens of other questions:
What services will be considered essential if 40 percent of the work force is unable to report to work? Who will decide if schools should be closed? What will happen if they must be closed for months rather than weeks? The state's plan currently allows for enough antiviral for about 23 percent of the state's population — who would get it?
In August, Gov. Jon Huntsman appointed a Task Force for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness to revise the state's plan, promote community education and act as a catalyst for legislative action that would improve the state's response to a major public health emergency.

"It was our intent to include a large swath of the community. Because this is not just a state challenge, it's a local and private sector challenge," said David Sundwall, executive director of the Utah Department of Health.
The state reached out to 37 people from various backgrounds, and all of them have joined, Sundwall said.
Members of the task force include emergency responders, community advocates, religious leaders, hospital administrators, tribal leaders, volunteer organizers and educators.
They have met four times, with two more meetings scheduled before they pass their recommendations on to the governor sometime in February.
Utah faces some hurdles in its pandemic plan.
The federal government is offering to subsidize state stockpiles of antivirals, paying 25 percent of the cost and asking states to come up with the remainder. The state had to indicate its interest and asked for a full allotment, which would cover about 23 percent of the state, at a cost to the state of $3.6 million. But in his budget released Tuesday, the governor allocated $1 million for the purchase of antivirals.
The money, which could change before it is approved by the Legislature, is a good start and will give the state a stockpile that will make it available beyond pandemic first responders, such as health care and emergency workers, said Robert Rolfs, state epidemiologist.
Under the federal contract with the match, the state has 18 months to come up with Utah's cost, making it possible for the state to come up with more money in next year's budget, he said.
Another area where the Utah falls short is in hospital bed capacity.
The state has about 4,900 hospital beds and the staff to handle about 4,500 of them.
"In anything but a mild pandemic people would need to understand that the health-care system would have difficulty or be impossible to provide care for everybody at the level that they've come to expect," Rolfs said.
It's an issue of "surge capacity" that the task force discussed in its November meeting and gets to the heart of what might be the most important outcome of the preparedness task force — public information.
"For the system to work as well as it can, we want people to seek care at the place that is most appropriate for them," Rolfs said. "We're going to have to communicate very well who should go to the hospital, who should stay home, who should go to an outpatient-care facility."
A nursing call-in line could be one way to accomplish that, he said.
Brochures on pandemic flu are already available at local health departments, and the health department's Web site has a section dedicated to pandemic flu. The task force will meet next on Jan. 4.
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