- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | Gov. Martin O’Malley pledged Wednesday to “spare no expense” in protecting residents from swine flu, though tough budget times recently brought $20 million in cuts to local health departments that will play a big role in distributing a vaccine to curb the spread of the virus.

“When it comes to this vaccination, if we have to dip into rainy-day funds or any other funds or do deficiency appropriations, we will spare no expense to get this done,” Mr. O’Malley said after a meeting with Cabinet members and with health and emergency-management officials.

The meeting was held to bring state officials up to date on plans to handle what is expected to be a big increase in swine flu cases this fall.

Health officials are urging people to get regular, seasonal flu shots now. They are expecting a swine flu vaccine to be available in mid-October, and health officials are still planning how to distribute the initial supplies of vaccine to those considered most vulnerable, including people between six months and 24 years of age, and pregnant women.

Frances Phillips, the state’s deputy health secretary, said every school system in the state is working with its local health department to report numbers of absent students to raise awareness about potential outbreaks. The state also is monitoring hospitals to keep track of admissions for flulike symptoms, which have been showing up all summer.

“That’s been very unusual,” Ms. Phillips said. “We don’t usually see flu admissions over the summer, and that’s a reflection of the fact that we have the swine flu H1N1 virus with us, and we expect that will ramp up over the next several months.”

So far, Maryland has reported seven swine flu deaths.

Flu outbreaks have been observed in summer camps and other settings with younger people in Maryland, but no outbreaks have been reported on college campuses in the state yet, Ms. Phillips said. However, that’s likely to change.

“It is highly likely that Maryland - like some other states, as have already been reported - will be experiencing outbreaks on our campuses,” Ms. Phillips said.

Maryland has received two federal grants totaling about $9 million to help plan a state response to the virus. Maryland is set to receive an additional $15.6 million in federal money for the vaccinations.

“The vast majority of it will go to local health departments to distribute and to make available primarily to the uninsured and for other public clinics,” said John M. Colmers, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene secretary.

The state is aiming to have a distribution plan for the vaccine by the middle of this month, Ms. Phillips said, including voluntary vaccinations in schools.

Meanwhile, Mr. O’Malley and other health officials urge residents to frequently wash their hands and cover coughs to avoid spreading the virus. They also are underscoring the importance of staying home when sick.

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