Vermont Welcomes National Pandemic Influenza Strategy

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 2, 2005

CONTACT: Communication Office
802-863-7281

BURLINGTON – Vermont officials are welcoming the release today of the U.S. Health and Human Services Pandemic Influenza Plan.

The Vermont Department of Health has been working over the past year to develop detailed plans to prepare for and respond to a pandemic – a worldwide outbreak – of a lethal strain of influenza.

“We’ve been waiting for the national strategy for almost a year, and now we’ll use it to update and expand our plans and strengthen state and local preparations,” said Health Commissioner Paul Jarris, MD. “These plans are never complete. We will continue to test and refine our response plan in coordination with local, state, national and Canadian partners.”

An influenza pandemic is a global outbreak that occurs when a new type of flu surfaces and spreads easily and rapidly from person to person. No one can say when a flu pandemic will strike, or if bird flu will be the trigger, but most scientists agree that a pandemic is likely. There have been three flu pandemics during the 20th century, most notably the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919, which killed at least half a million people in the U.S.

A flu pandemic has very little in common with the annual flu season and understanding the difference is important.

“Most Vermonters see annual flu as an inconvenience that must be endured like a bad snowstorm,” said Dr. Jarris. “Annual flu is a health concern every year, as at least 36,000 Americans and 70 Vermonters die from influenza every year. Vermonters can protect themselves by getting their annual flu vaccination and practicing good hygiene: cover your cough, wash your hands often and well, and stay home when you’re sick.”

A pandemic is a new strain of influenza for which people have no immunity, and no vaccine may be available in advance, said Dr. Jarris.

“Slowing the spread of a possible pandemic flu and caring for the many people who become sick will require strong measures that, as a society, we have not used in a generation. That’s why we must plan carefully and openly, and start public discussions now about measures that may become necessary – such as vaccine rationing, isolation, quarantine, helping our neighbors in isolation or quarantine, and travel restrictions. We have to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and learn lessons from the past.”

Key elements of Vermont's pandemic influenza response planning:

On November 18, 2004, during the annual flu vaccine shortage, the capacity to vaccinate 8,000 people in one day was tested in simultaneous community clinics around the state.

In May 2005, the Vermont Department of Health hosted a pandemic influenza planning meeting of public health and emergency management colleagues from New York, New Hampshire and Quebec.

In a June 2005 tabletop exercise, the Health Department tested its draft plan with more than 100 health, hospital and emergency officials to respond to a widespread outbreak of pandemic influenza.

The Health Department is recruiting and organizing volunteers who can help in clinic and other response activities, and mental health professionals are being trained to help Vermonters cope with traumatic events such as pandemic flu.

On November 1, hospitals participated in a statewide hospital mutual aid response to test their capacity to admit 350 patients with a diagnosis of avian influenza.

A full-scale pandemic flu exercise is planned for mid-2006, with tabletops, drills and other exercises leading up to the full scale event.