Pandemic of Planning

March 5, 2008
Commentary, The Daily News,

Most adults in America have probably suffered from a bout with the flu. They didn’t like it, but they dealt with it and were soon back to life as normal. So it’s not surprising that even as health officials are confessing that they missed the mark with this year’s flu shots, there’s no widespread panic. Concern, maybe, but not panic. If they get the flu, people figure they’ll deal with it. It’s the American way.
But what if the unthinkable were to happen and the flu mutated into a particularly potent strain that struck hard and wide, becoming not just an epidemic but a pandemic, akin to the 1918 influenza outbreak described in Thomas Mullen’s novel The Last Town on Earth? Local health and emergency management officials say the idea’s not all that farfetched. They’ve thought about the possibility and tried to plan some response – what Orleans County Emergency Management Director Paul Wagner calls a ”mass fatality plan.”
Sue Conklin, the Genesee County historian speaking at Richmond Memorial Library last week, described similar response plans, noting that in such an emergency government employees would be called into service to keep things functioning. Things like … water service, for example. The municipal water you turn on without thinking might not be there if the people who run the water treatment facilities are all sick. If all the highway department employees are sick, who will plow or salt the roads on a day like today? Who will keep the gas stations open? Who will open the grocery stores? Who will drive the trucks that supply the stores?
Mrs. Conklin warned that it’s not a question of ”if” such a pandemic happens, but ”when.” Mr. Wagner figures he is ”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.”
Because most of us don’t have a plan that goes beyond a few days. We have our stash of candles and batteries, water and canned goods, but don’t figure on anything that would disrupt life for more than a few days.
In the 1918 flu, however, life was disrupted for weeks at a time, according to newspaper clips shown by Mrs. Conklin. Imagine schools being out for seven weeks. Imagine your work place being ordered to shut down for a month. Do you still get paid? For how long? And what do you do if you aren’t sick and you get tired of staying home? The movie theaters and other places or entertainment have been ordered closed. Churches, too. Even funerals have been banned, along with other public gatherings.
It wouldn’t hurt to have a plan, would it? County planners can only do so much. They can work to keep the water flowing and the roads clear, but a lot of the responsibility for getting through a lethal outbreak is up to individuals. No, it wouldn’t hurt to have a plan at all.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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