March 4, 2008
By Tom Rivers
For several weeks the community has been reading a fictional account of the 1918 influenza outbreak in Thomas Mullen’s novel The Last Town on Earth.
Ninety years later, local health and emergency management officials say such a nightmarish pandemic is not so farfetched today.
The flu is constantly mutating, health officials said. They note that this year’s flu shot missed the mark, allowing widespread flu, although a far cry from the 1918 flu described in The Last Town on Earth, the featured book in this year “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.
Public health and emergency management officials are constantly on watch for virus outbreaks that strike locally, regionally or throughout the country. They are vigilant about other disasters that can emerge unannounced at any time, whether a contagious disease that ravages livestock or a collision of two jetliners, high in the sky, which would rain debris on the communities below.
“I tell people I’m probably the most paranoid person in Orleans County because I’m thinking about all of this stuff and trying to come up with a plan,” said Paul Wagner, Orleans County emergency management director.
The county has a “mass fatality plan” should a virus decimate the population. In that case there won’t be funerals or public gatherings until the virus had passed. If foot-and-mouth disease hit local livestock, Wagner said thousands of animals would be quarantined or slaughtered and incinerated.
“As a people in America we’re pretty complacent about these things,” Wagner said. “But we shouldn’t be because any one of them could come up and bite us.”
Counties have plans in place for mass vaccinations in case of an outbreak. Erie County put its public health plan to the test in mid-February when 10,153 people were given vaccinations in a hepatitis A scare. Local county health employees assisted Erie County in administering the doses and organizing the mass vaccinations.
“It’s a real threat that a lot of people don’t think about,” Paul Pettit, the Orleans County Health Department director, said about the flu and other pandemics. “We write these plans but we don’t put them into practice unless there is an event.”
Wagner has led several exercises with local emergency responders and health officials, simulating a response to a massive lethal outbreak. While he worries about a widespread outbreak, he spends more time planning for Mother Nature’s potential disasters.
“It’s a daunting task and we worry about it,” he said about disease outbreaks. “But we worry more about wind storms, ice storms and snow storms. They happen more and can have more far-ranging consequences.”
Wyoming County officials have also conducted several such drills over the years, including a mass casualty drill last spring, which simulated a chemical truck accident at Letchworth Central School.
Officials have also worked in the past with the Warsaw Junior Tigers Football team to offer It’s a Disaster … and What are YOU Gonna Do About It?, an advice book for everything from snowstorms to terrorism.
Timothy Yaeger, Genesee County director of Emergency Services, said he works closely with the Health Department and staff is routinely going to training seminars, workshops and conferences, including the latest one in Atlanta.
“Primarily it is a plan for dealing with a pandemic,” he said. “We have a draft plan in place and we’re just massaging it a bit until it’s final.”
Neither Pettit nor Wagner has read The Last Town on Earth, but Wagner said he recently read about the Influenza of 1918 in Scientific American. He didn’t sleep much after that for a few days.
Daily News Staff Writers Matt Surtel and Scott DeSmit contributed to this report
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation