Tuesday, Jun 28, 2016
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Medical

Bird-flu practice drill shows grim possibilities

Surgical masks for nurses, check. Tamiflu for patients, check. Some refrigerator trucks to store all the dead bodies, check.

Make that a lot of trucks.

Area health officials held a bird flu disaster drill yesterday, and it was soon apparent just how grim a worst-case scenario would be.

In the midst of the simulated flu pandemic, hospital officials were overrun by sick and dying patients. Hospitals quickly ran out of space to store dead bodies. That prompted a call for refrigerator trucks to act as temporary morgues to store dead bodies.

How many dead bodies? Under the imaginary situation played out yesterday, 800 people were dying each day from bird flu in northwest Ohio over the course of several weeks. To give you some idea how severe that is, in a normal five-month flu season around 3,000 people die from the flu - in the entire state of Ohio.

Numbers like that are why health departments throughout the region are practicing how they'd respond to bird flu. Those drilling yesterday were stationed in Toledo, Defiance, Sandusky, and locations throughout the region.

So far, there's no reason for alarm regarding the disease. The strain of bird flu now circulating in Asia normally infects birds. Only in rare cases does it infect humans - about 200 people worldwide so far. But health experts are worried the strain could mutate into one that easily spreads from person to person with deadly consequences.

At yesterday's drill, health departments and emergency officials from across northwest Ohio practiced responding to mock scenarios. Area hospital representatives were told that half or more of their staff called in sick because of the flu, which presented another challenge.

Dr. David Grossman, health commissioner for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, read off reports handed to him, and even though it was a mock situation, the sense of urgency was clear in his voice:

"Hospitals are reporting high numbers of deaths of previously healthy people," he told his colleagues sitting around a table surrounded by phones and disaster plans. "Obviously the illness is accelerating. We need to look at declaring a public health emergency. I'm ready now!"

He pressed hospital representatives to tell him how they were going to deal with the overflow of patients.

"I need to know if you've opened your alternate care sites," he told them.

Sites, such as the University of Toledo's Savage Hall, Bowling Green State University's field house, area high schools, and other locations, might be pressed into service as temporary hospitals in these "alternate" care scenarios.

Dr. Grossman said the four-hour drill was useful because it showed both what's being done well, and "where our weaknesses are."

Contact Luke Shockman at:

lshockman@theblade.com

or 419-724-6084.

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