Fletcher Allen Infectious Disease Expert Takes Leadership Role in Pan Flu Preparation

For Immediate Release: Sept. 23, 2008
Media Contact: Communication Office
Vermont Department of Health

BURLINGTON – Christopher Grace, MD, and a multidisciplinary team are working to prepare Fletcher Allen Health Care for the possibility of an influenza pandemic. The tools they have developed to combat a bioterrorism attack are now being used in the event of a pandemic influenza.

Dr. Grace, who is director of the infectious disease unit at the hospital, wrote in a 2003 e-mail to healthcare providers: “The major tool to combat a biological attack is education. The early recognition of the clinical illness and rapid institution of both appropriate therapy and infection control measures will save lives and potentially blunt the spread of a catastrophic epidemic. Medical providers are the first defense against such an attack.”

Educating health care providers – and Vermonters in general – about pandemic flu will be instrumental in how effectively the state will respond. Dr. Grace believes that a worldwide outbreak of a new and severe strain of influenza, for which people will have little or no immunity, is a strong possibility. There have been three pandemics in the last century, the last in 1968. The longest span between pandemics over the past 300 years has been 42 years.

“The very hard question we don’t know the answer to is – how bad it will be,” Dr. Grace said. “It could be mild like the last one in 1968. Our approach is it will be big and it will be bad. If not, we can always downscale.”

Dr. Grace has served as Fletcher Allen Health Care's leading clinical expert during numerous pandemic flu exercises with the Vermont Department of Health, Vermont Emergency Management, the University of Vermont, the Vermont National Guard and many other partners. The most recent exercise, on June 11, tested medical surge capacity at all of the state's hospitals.

“We have influenza every year, and nationwide 25,000 to 30,000 people die from influenza” Dr. Grace said. “We need to educate people that during a normal flu season only a few people with the flu require hospitalization. We will be asking people, during a pandemic, to stay home unless they are very, very sick.”

During a pandemic, first responders and frontline health care workers will be among those most needed to come to work and provide care. As many as 30 percent of the state’s population could become ill during a severe pandemic. Those first responders and frontline health care workers, Dr. Grace believes, need to be reassured that the hospital is doing all it can to protect them in the event of a pandemic.

“Health care workers at every one of our campuses and clinics will be wearing surgical masks, and N95 respirators as needed to provide as much protection as possible. Hand washing and cough etiquette will be enforced,” Dr. Grace said. “That’s a big part of what we drill during exercises.”

Wearing masks and respirators will not give complete protection from the flu, and there is no way of knowing how much protection antiviral drugs would provide.

“I don’t know how well drugs like Oseltaminvir (Tamiflu) will work either for treatment or prevention, so we could be in a situation where we will have no vaccine and not enough antiviral medication supply — so what do we have left?” Dr. Grace said. “What we have left is we will do everything we can to protect each other with use of personnel protection equipment and social distancing. It would be foolish not to.”

September is National Preparedness Month, and state health officials are asking Vermonters in all walks of life to prepare for an extreme health emergency such as pandemic influenza by taking simple steps NOW to prepare:

For more information, resources and tools — including the American Red Cross flyer on providing home care for someone sick with the flu — visit the Health Department's website at healthvermont.gov, then select pandemic flu.


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