East Portland business people get straight scoop on pending pandemic

If an influenza pandemic hits East Portland, 40% of its business will be forced to close for as long as six weeks. Everyday life, as we know it, will be suspended. Read this, and find out what business people learned from the “flu guru” of Multnomah County ‚Ķ

Pulling no punches, Jessica Guernsey Camargo, Program Supervisor with Multnomah County Health Department, describes the impact a flu pandemic will have on businesses and residents

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Last summer, we brought you the hard facts about what would happen if the “Bird Flu” turns into a worldwide pandemic. Portland is along the “Pacific Flyway” along which infected birds from Asia may travel.

The bottom line: People will die, life in the city will be disrupted ‚Äì and don’t expect the government to take care of you.

Enlisting business people’s help
In late January, the Multnomah County Health Department’s (MCHD) program supervisor in charge of pandemic planning, Jessica Guernsey Camargo, MPH, spoke to business people from the East Portland area.

Speaking in an assured, matter-of-fact voice, Camargo presented an “Avian and Pandemic influenza Update” containing some disturbing information.

“First, seasonal influenza is typically spread with a sneeze,” she began. “It affects up to 20% of population; the figure is higher among children.”

Getting flu shot helps, she said. “And, good hygiene is basic, for prevention. This means wash your hands; cover your cough, and stay home when you’re ill.”

Pandemic influenza defined
“A ‘Pandemic’ is a worldwide outbreak of flu that occurs nearly simultaneously around the world,” explained Camargo.

She said it’s well-known that a lot of people died during the pandemics of 1918 and 1957-58. But, in 1968-69, most people didn’t know there was another pandemic outbreak underway.

Current pandemic assumptions
Camargo warned, “We do not know what the next strain of pandemic will be, so we can’t produce a vaccine. When we do, it will take 6 months to make a vaccine.” Anti-viral drugs will have a limited effect, she added, and will take some time to produce. “There are concerns regarding viral resistance to current virus medications like ‘Tamaflu’.”

The Avian Influenza, she continued, called “HP-H5N1”, is primarily a disease among birds–mainly in Asia. The “HP” stands for “Highly Pathogenic”. “It is passed from birds to humans ‚Äì not humans to humans, at this time. While few people get infected, over half of those who catch it die from it. We’re testing birds here in Oregon, but we haven’t seen it, yet.”

A role of MCHD, Camargo explained, is disease surveillance–identifying and containing a disease outbreak.

Another role of the county agency is planning for emergency response, should a human-to-human pandemic flu virus arrive in the Pacific Northwest. In November, MCHD coordinated a statewide preparedness exercise called “PANDORA”.

Information gained from this exercise, Camargo related, includes revising the MCHD emergency response plan to include:

  • Increasing public information community education and engagement;
  • Increasing hospital capacity; and,
  • Increasing ability to deliver medications and vaccinations.

The county health department’s Jessica Camargo describes the responses to a pandemic their bureau is permitted, by law, to take.

Community-level intervention
Asked if a quarantine would stop the pandemic, Camargo replied, “We do have the ability to do that. If it is early-on in the pandemic, and we have an isolated situation, quarantine may be effective. But it is not practical to quarantine a neighborhood.”

While the MHDC has the legal authority to impose a quarantine, Camargo told the group, “we don’t want to completely disrupt the community. When the situation is past, we want something left to come back to.”

She urged businesspeople to think about the effect that different steps to limit the impact of a pandemic could have on their businesses.

Increasing from moderate to severe responses, as needed, the MHDC proposes:

  1. Routine patient isolation;
  2. Focused contact notification/management;
  3. Quarantine of small groups;
  4. Closure of specific facilities and events;
  5. Community-wide activity slow downs (stay home days) including
  6. Cancellation of school and public events;
  7. Broad closures of businesses, schools and events; and,
  8. Strict communitywide quarantine.

Camargo listens to the concern that a pandemic might shutter many small businesses, voiced by 82nd Ave. of Roses Business Association president Ken Turner.

Effect of measures on businesses
“People still have to buy groceries when they’re sick, don’t they?” asks participant Jean Baker, president of the Division/Clinton Business Association.

If a pandemic worsens to the level of requiring community-level intervention, Camargo said the officials will begin to “enforce ‘social distancing'”. “In a pandemic scenario, it is possible that more than half of a company’s workforce may be too ill to work. This is why both citizens and businesspeople need to be prepared and make a plan.”

Ken Turner added, “This could destroy many small and micro-businesses here in East Portland.”

“So, ‘the government’ can’t help?” we asked.

“There is no magic wand,” Camargo responds. “There is no ‘cavalry’ coming. We’ll all be dealing with this at the same time. It will require every single person to make this a livable situation.”

Be aware and prepare
How will businesses – and citizens – be able to survive the Avian Flu?

“Multnomah County is doing all we can to prepare for it from the governmental side,” answered Camargo. But people put too much reliance on vaccines and medication. The fact is, the only real way of managing a pandemic is through citizens taking personal responsibility.”

For more information, see www.mchealth.org, or call (503) 988-4454 for a recorded message.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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