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Published: Tuesday, 4/28/2009

Toledo-based FLOC aims to screen seasonal workers

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
AND TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez, who founded the organization in 1967, said northwest Ohio is one of the country's biggest areas for seasonal work, with 7,000 people typically here each summer.

Thousands of migrant workers, many of whom are in North Carolina, will start arriving in the area by the end of May in preparation for the cucumber harvest in early July. Farm operators normally want everyone in place by mid-June, he said.

"It's going to be a devastating economic blow if they can't get workers," Mr. Velasquez said, explaining that it would be almost impossible to find help elsewhere overnight.

FLOC, which represents 12,000 migrants workers, mostly in Ohio and North Carolina, is attempting to screen documented "guest workers" in North Carolina for flulike symptoms now, monitoring for workers who sneeze, cough, have watery eyes, are congested, or are unusually fatigued, Mr. Velasquez said.

Dr. David Grossman, com-missioner of the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, said local cases of swine flu are likely because travel is common between northwest Ohio and Mexico, which apparently is the disease's "ground zero."

Migrant workers' living conditions are ideal for spreading the flu: They often are in cramped buses for two or more days at a time, then stay in overcrowded labor camps. Mr. Velazquez said that although FLOC normally encourages them to be a close-knit community, it is telling them this year to avoid gathering in large numbers whenever possible - at least until the threat of the swine flu outbreak is over.

FLOC has had a mobile health clinic for 14 years. It is being put into service a month early this year because of the swine flu outbreak. Doctors and nurses associated with it will be looking for symptoms among workers they see in the field, Mr. Velasquez said.

"We're doing some pre-emptive screening," he said.

Officials from FLOC, local hospitals, law enforcement, emergency medical services, United Way of Greater Toledo, and other agencies met at the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department yesterday afternoon to coordinate plans for handling swine flu and educating residents.

The health department also is talking with school districts and their nurses about swine flu, although Dr. Grossman said he is not aware of any with groups that recently traveled to Mexico.

"I can't stress strongly enough we do not have it in our area now," Dr. Grossman told reporters after the meeting yesterday.

Ohio has had one confirmed case of swine flu, in Lorain County, and Michigan officials said they had one case of probable swine flu, in Livingston County northwest of Detroit.

The Ohio Department of Health also is checking an undisclosed number of other possible cases, including one reported in Wood County.

Yesterday, the Ohio Department of Health set up a toll-free information line, 1-866-800-1404, for Ohioans to call if they have any questions relating to swine flu, which exhibits itself with symptoms typical of seasonal flu: a fever of 100 or higher, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, chills, fatigue, and, in some cases, diarrhea and vomiting.

"We think that in light of what's going on, we wanted everyone to look for the symptoms," said Kristopher Weiss, a department spokesman. "People can play a big role in helping to stop or slow an outbreak when one arises. The most important thing is wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands," Mr. Weiss said.

The hot line is being staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

In Wood County, health officials asked the deparmtment to test serum left over from an unidentified adult woman's recent illness. The woman, who had recently traveled into Mexico from Texas, reported flulike symptoms to the Wood County Hospital.

Pat Snyder, a spokesman for the Wood County Health Department, said the woman has recovered from her illness. She became ill before the concern over swine flu was raised.

Bowling Green State University students, faculty, and staff were sent an e-mail yesterday outlining precautions, symptoms, and what to do if such symptoms develop.

BGSU Spokesman Dave Kielmeyer said the university has one student studying in Mexico right now, and that student, along with all others enrolled in international programs, were notified about precautions to take.

Mr. Weiss said the state agency is evaluating flu cases like the one reported in Wood County as they come in, checking to see where the patient may have traveled recently, and, when appropriate, asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to perform additional testing.

He said the seasonal flu shots many Ohioans get in the fall and winter will not protect them from swine flu, which he called "a novel virus or a virus that's not been seen before in humans."

Dr. Grossman said anyone showing signs of swine flu should seek a doctor's help but avoid emergency rooms if possible.

At 3 p.m. today, public health officials in Lucas County will begin manning United Way's 211 hot line to answer questions about swine flu.

Staff writers Julie McKinnon and Mark Reiter contributed to this report.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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