Kalispell Regional Prepares for the Next Pandemic

By Beacon Staff

How do you prepare for something you have yet to see? Plan for the worst but hope for the best.

“It’s our job to get ahead of the curve and take responsibility,” Public Health Nurse Allison Bishop said. “We need to be in a position to mitigate this situation and get through it with as little damage as possible.”

The Flathead County Pandemic Planning Group will hold a tabletop exercise/scenario Feb. 26 to address a myriad of issues associated with what they call an inevitable influenza pandemic.

Bill Boyd, clinical safety officer at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, said if a pandemic were to occur, basic infrastructure and healthcare systems would be severely strained. “Allocation of scarce resources, both human and financial, will be limiting factors,” Boyd said. There is the potential for the local work force to see 25-40 percent reduction with a 5 percent mortality rate over the general population.

Boyd emphasized the planning groups continued effort to remain transparent during an outbreak.

“We need to educate the public so they understand the measures that must being taken during that time,” he said. “We need to know how we are going to operate at the most basic levels.”

In times of social unrest Boyd says transparency becomes an increasingly difficult task when coupled with ethical questions.

“How do we decide who gets a bed space or who is vaccinated?” He said. “What happens when nurses aren’t showing up but patients are?”

Then there is the mental debris.

Recent evidence from Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks confirm that the mental health component is staggering in the aftermath of disaster. Suicide rates in New Orleans tripled after Katrina. Montana already has the highest suicide rate in the country, twice the national average.

Avian flu (H5N1) is the most likely candidate to start a pandemic. It fits two of the three pandemic conditions: a new influenza subtype that has not previously circulated in humans capable of causing disease in humans.

The third decisive factor, Bishop said, is the ability of (H5N1) to mutate, allowing it to pass efficiently person-to-person.

“As a virus, (H5N1) is not very effective right now,” she said. “But if it mutates, and it passes human-to-human effectively, it will spread worldwide in three months.”

There are many flu strains, both human infecting and not. H5 strains, though usually confined to birds, are remarkably deadly when they do infect humans. To date, the World Health Organization has recorded 360 confirmed human cases of the H5N1 virus as of Feb. 12.

Of the three influenza pandemics of the 20th century, the potential Avian pandemic has drawn most of its comparison to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919.

Each year, 36,000 people in the U.S. die from seasonal influenza, a number on the rise since the late 1970’s. A pandemic’s potential toll could cripple the global economy and leave 36,000 sick or immobilized and 4,500 dead in the Flathead Valley alone.