- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

RICHMOND — A report shows Virginia is better prepared than most other states for health emergencies such as pandemic flu, but officials say there is room for improvement and that staying prepared will take constant vigilance.

“We’re never going to have a final, perfect plan,” said Dr. Lisa Kaplowitz, Virginia’s deputy commissioner for emergency, preparedness and response. “We’re constantly revising our plans as necessary and pushing ahead to make sure we’re fully prepared.”

Three influenza pandemics hit the United States during the past century. The worst, the 1918 pandemic, killed about 50 million people worldwide. Virginia health officials estimate a pandemic today could sicken as many as 2.5 million people in the state and kill as many as 6,300.

The federal government began urging states several years ago to start planning for a pandemic. In Virginia, a draft pandemic flu response plan was developed in 2002 as a template to deal with the issue.

The plans have taken on a greater urgency because of concerns about the H5N1 avian flu virus.

The report, released by the Trust for America’s Health advocacy group, ranked Virginia among the better-performing states for emergency health preparedness. Virginia scored eight out of 10 points for key factors such as having an adequate number of lab scientists to test for anthrax or plague. Half of states scored six or lower. Maryland scored four, and the District scored five.

The report also found that half the states, including Virginia, would run out of hospital beds within two weeks of a moderately severe pandemic outbreak.

Virginia’s hospital bed capacity is 14,700, and health officials have identified an additional 4,241 beds that could be used during a pandemic, said Col. Robert Mauskapf, state emergency planning coordinator. Officials are purchasing triage facilities to set up outside hospitals to identify which patients need hospitalization, lessening the strain on hospital staff during a pandemic, he said.

Virginia is among 40 states that face a nursing shortage, the report found.

State health officials were not surprised by the report findings and are working to resolve the issues, Dr. Kaplowitz said.

They were concerned about the hospital plans after a two-day, statewide exercise in October to evaluate response-and-recovery operations during a pandemic. All 35 health districts, emergency management and public safety agencies, and 88 hospitals participated.

The exercise raised questions about how to store bodies and when to close schools, Dr. Kaplowitz said. There also were concerns about the most effective way to get information to the public.

Health officials have established a call center to be activated and staffed by public health professionals, said Diane Powers, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health. They also have tried to raise awareness of the issue by creating a short video for the public that explains pandemic flu and how people can protect themselves.

Virginia has spent about $1.6 million of the roughly $5.4 million in federal grants it has been allocated for pandemic preparations, Mrs. Powers said. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, approved about $11 million to purchase the full allotment of antiviral medicine offered under the federal subsidy program, about 770,000 treatment courses.

Hospitals are stockpiling supplies such as protective equipment for health care workers and ventilators.

“We’ve come a long way,” Dr. Kaplowitz said. “We still have work to do and we’re taking this very seriously.”

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