By Joe O’Halloran
With flu season here and anxiety growing about the threat of the next wave of the H1N1 influenza virus, aka swine flu, Long Island health officials have been ratcheting up initiatives to better prepare the public for the potential of a new outbreak.
Nassau health and elected officials gathered Oct. 5 at Hofstra University to discuss how to best alert residents about the virus and combat it. They announced the receipt of the first 1,000 vaccinations and also recognized the county’s emergency preparedness volunteers for their dedicated service in the battle.
Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi stressed that calmer minds would prevail against the potentially fatal H1N1, which claimed 582 lives nationwide through Aug. 30 alone, and combined with the seasonal flu, 182 from that date through Sept. 26, 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have a consistent message throughout the county: Be prepared, not scared,” Suozzi said at the meeting. “People read newspapers and watch television, and a lot of the stuff they see about the flu gets them all hyped up and they eventually get scared.”
Grace Kelly-McGovern, spokeswoman for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, tells the Press Suffolk also received a shipment of 1,000 vaccinations against the H1N1 virus and expects another shipment to arrive mid-October.
According to health officials, 91,000 H1N1 vaccinations were shipped to counties outside New York City throughout New York State earlier this month, with more on the way. The vaccinations would first be administered to healthcare workers, pregnant women, people living with or providing care to children under six months of age, and children 5 to 18 years old with underlying medical conditions.
“These people are the ones most at risk for either contracting or passing along the virus, and therefore we need to pay close attention and prioritize them for the vaccination,” said Dr. Tavora Buchman, a research scientist with the Nassau County Department of Health and Human Services.
H1N1 is transmitted through coughing and sneezing and by touching the nose, mouth, or eyes after coming in contact with a contaminated object, similar to how seasonal influenza is spread, she explained.
Director of the New York State Emergency Management Office John Gibb explained that the swine flu unfolded atypically compared to previous viral outbreaks, and consequently, response plans were reevaluated to better adapt. Other events also streamlined response strategies, he added.
“Some of our initial efforts post-9/11 were focused on preparing for anthrax attacks and smallpox outbreaks, so we didn’t have to do a lot of scrambling around in April to get our plans ready [to combat H1N1] because we had been knee-deep in preparing these plans for a number of years,” said Gibb.
Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, commissioner of the Nassau Health Department, emphasized the added benefit volunteers will play in the county’s response.
“The Nassau County Medical Reserve Corps and Community Emergency Response Teams have partnered with Nassau County Department of Health and the Office of Emergency Management on many past public health emergencies,” she explained. “They will again be a vital part of protecting the health of residents this fall and winter.”
Dr. David Graham, chief deputy of the Suffolk County Health Department, says his side of the Island has a plan similar to Nassau’s, with medical professionals who volunteer when needed, along with civilian corps of volunteers that undergo extensive training for major outbreaks.
Misinformation has a tendency to fuel public hysteria when it comes to airborne illnesses like swine flu, reiterated Suozzi, which is why properly strategizing is so important.
“The fact is that a lot of people are going to get the H1N1 virus this year and a lot of people are going to get sick, but if we are prepared, we will know how to handle it,” he said. “Our educational efforts have to be designed toward educating and informing, not panicking.”