U.S. flu outbreak prompts medical exercise

By Darrell Todd Maurina

Media across New Mexico and the nation have been reporting on the progress of a worse-than-usual flu outbreak this winter for which the standard flu vaccine doesn’t provide specific immunity.
On Friday, local emergency management staff reported on a state exercise bringing planners together to discuss what they would do in case of a much worse situation, modeled on the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak that infected about 28 percent of the American population and killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide.
“To think of what would happen if 60 percent of the people in Clovis were dead is just amazing,” said Terri Marney of Plains Regional Medical Center at a meeting of the exercise design subcommittee of the Local Emergency Planning Commission.
“Think of all the problems it would cause,” Marney said. “The Presbyterian (hospital) system has taken that scenario and said, ‘How would we handle this? Would we transfer supplies between our hospitals? What would we do?’”
Emergency Management Director Ken De Los Santos reminded subcommittee members that radical scenarios — closing of the state borders, shutdowns of hospitals, quarantines of entire communities and blockades of the transportation system — aren’t necessarily farfetched scenarios. Such plans actually were used during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.
“We went probably a full day going through that scenario to determine how we would respond,” De Los Santos told the subcommittee. “It started out slow with just an outbreak here and there, but then it grew and grew.”
“Dealing with hazardous materials incidents and mass casualties was much easier than the flu,” Marney said. “The idea that we would have to close the hospital because there are no more beds is just terrifying.”
Marney and De Los Santos cautioned that they have no reason to believe the current flu outbreak would reach such levels, but said planning for such disasters helps emergency management personnel prepare for similar medical issues ranging from mass infectious disease to bioterrorism.
In other business, the subcommittee discussed whether the city of Farwell would be able to participate in a disaster preparation exercise and received a report from Cannon Air Force Base personnel on military preparations to handle emergencies and disaster situations and how military personnel would interact with civilian authorities in the event of a disaster.