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Looking back: Community warned about preparedness in 2007 effort

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Editor’s note: This article from 2007 shows health experts have known for a long time that communities were not ready to respond to a pandemic. No county commissioners who were in office in 2007 are on the current board.

Jones County’s biggest problem with a pandemic flu occurrence may be the perceived apathy demonstrated in planning for the event by local elected officials.

Preparedness meetings began in Jones County and across the nation in 2006. The North Central Health District held a community program in Gray in July of 2006 and presented the facts of past pandemics and forecast for the next one.

Jones County’s pandemic flu preparedness committee met July 17 at the Emergency Management office and has the task of educating the public to the reality of having to be self-sufficient if the disease hits. In the case of a pandemic, communities cannot be dependent on federal or even state assistance.

According to the Georgia Department of Human Resources Public Health website, a pandemic is a global disease outbreak. A flu pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges for which people have little or no immunity and for which there is no vaccine. The disease spreads easily person-to-person, causes serious illness, and can sweep across the country and around the world in very short time.

The state has mandated each community create a preparedness and response plan, and the plan is due Aug. 31. Emergency Management Director Allan Green is the chairman of Jones County’s preparedness committee and has taken the lead in preparing the plan.

The crux of the plan is keeping the flu from spreading. The way to accomplish that is simple in theory but may be difficult to achieve. The key to controlling the disease is distancing the infected from the non-infected and a lot of hand washing. According to the Center for Disease Control, people should stay six feet from one another to avoid infection. Nevertheless, the infected must be cared for and hospitals may not be an option.

Danny Strandburg from the Medical Center of Central Georgia said household education is essential.

“We need to train kids to wash their hands and stay away from crowded places. They are a good outlet to train,” he noted. “When the Board of Education trains the kids, they take it home. It’s very basic education, but it would reduce the spread.”

Strandburg said protection control is basic.

“That information is easy to get to the public, but discouraging them from going to the hospital and to church is hard,” he said.

Green said businesses, churches and social programs are a huge component to educating the public.

City and county elected officials were conspicuous by their absence at the meeting with Probate Judge Mike Greene the sole representative. Greene said the court system is taking the threat seriously. Personnel are being trained and emergency kits are being sent to each courthouse.

He asked if the county had a plan to train its employees about what to do if a pandemic strikes.

“We need to get the elected officials involved first, and none of them are here today,” the director responded.

An after action report by the North Central Health District Office about Jones County’s Feb. 20 tabletop exercise stated, “The fact no elected official or business leaders were present at the exercise lends itself to the belief that the leadership of Jones County does not seem to have bought into this concept.”

The report also said, if Jones County is going to be prepared for a pandemic, there must be some direction from its elected officials and preparation from local business owners.

Gray Nursing Home and Stone Brooke Suites director Chap Nelson said employees at his facilities have recently completed the training.

“It was a great packet, but I would guess 95 percent made no impact. We want them to take care of the home situation so they are in a position to help us,” he commented. Nelson went on to say, after seeing employees’ response to the pandemic training, the plan for the facility was changed.

“We are now building apathy into the plan. We found out we had over anticipated people’s participation,” he added.

The problem in educating the public about the possibility of a pandemic is how to stress the seriousness of the threat of the disease without starting a panic. The devastation of a pandemic has been compared to that of a nuclear disaster.

“We don’t want a sense of panic, but we need a sense of vigilance,” Green said.

Authorities say not a lot of weapons are available against a pandemic because there will not be enough time to develop vaccines. Heath care may be better than when outbreaks have occurred in the past, but increased global travel means new risks.

A pandemic could affect one-third of the population through sickness and caring for sick family members and daily life would be interrupted.

Because of the contagiousness of disease people need to be prepared to stay home and deal with the sickness of family members themselves.

In the case of an outbreak, essential services may be disrupted including food and water supplies. It is suggested to store two weeks of nonperishable food, and two weeks of water allowing for one gallon of water per person per day.

Green said part of the preparedness plan is to have equipment ready and supply distribution points identified. In case of an outbreak, the health department will take the lead and the EMA will be the coordinating agency.