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Plan in place to deal with swine flu in Utah

By John Hollenhorst | Posted - Apr. 26, 2009 at 9:38 p.m.



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(AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

SALT LAKE CITY -- Churches are closed, events have been canceled, and the entire world is on alert as a contagious and possibly deadly disease is spreading throughout the globe.

The swine flu was first detected in Mexico and has since crept into the U.S. and other countries. The unique type of flu has now been diagnosed in five different states. New York has the most confirmed cases with eight, followed closely by California with seven. Kansas and Texas both have two, and Ohio has reported a single case, bringing the total to 20 in America.

While the disease is a growing medical mystery, health officials emphasize all the detected case here are minor. Still, they are taking every precaution to prevent an epidemic.

Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security Secretary, said, "I wish we could call it a declaration of emergency preparedness, because that's really what it is in this context."

Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, said, "We do think this will continue to spread, but we are taking aggressive actions to minimize the impact on peoples' health."

In the wake of the emergency declaration, Utah's top health officials gathered in a rare Sunday conference. They started fine-tuning an existing plan to keep Utahns safe, just in case the disease makes its way here.

Bear in mind, there are no reported cases in Utah so far, and the cases in other states have been mild. So one important message is: Don't panic if you get a cough or a runny nose!

At University Hospital, the declaration of a national emergency may have changed the atmosphere but not the staffing.

University Hospital spokesman Chris Nelson said, "It makes us a little more vigilant. One of the things I would say is that all hospitals, including University Hospital, have been practicing for this scenario for a long time."

State health officials huddled in telephone conferences with national health experts. They say the basic playbook was adopted two years ago.

Dr. David Sundwall, executive director for the Utah Department of Health, said, "Do we close the schools and when? How do we distribute these anti-viral medications? We're not starting from scratch. I'm really glad that we did that planning."

Some experts say Mexico was late in closing down schools and public events, but it's not even being considered yet in the U.S.

"This is just a menu of things that you'd consider if you start seeing clusters of illness crop up, but we're not anywhere close to that now," Dr. Sundwall said.

Infectious disease experts at the U did retrain emergency room staff over the weekend on handling patients with flu-like symptoms.

"You know, they're put into an isolated room with negative pressure. We don the proper masks and gloves and protocols," Nelson said.

They're asking people with respiratory symptoms to stay at home but to go to a doctor if they have the serious hallmarks of flu -- like a fever, muscle aches, exhaustion, chills, sweats and headaches --not just a cold.

"Well, I think you have to use common sense. You know we're subject to colds, to respiratory illnesses all the time. I think though, if I were running a fever, had muscle aches and felt unusually tired along with a respiratory illness, yeah, I'd go to the doctor," Dr. Sundwall said.

The most basic advice is what you're always advised to do. "Hand washing, hand washing is always key. Whether you go into a hospital, or a daycare or a restaurant," Nelson said.

The state did begin ordering anti-viral medications today. Still, officials emphasize that it's not a time for alarm, just alertness.

One other thing, health officials emphasized today that swine flu is not spread by eating meat, so feel free to eat all the pork you want.

Travel requirements by airline

Because of the outbreak in Mexico, health authorities in that country have started to implement flu prevention measures.

As travelers arrive at various airports in the country, they are handed surgical masks with the hope of containing the disease. Millions of masks have been handed out so far.

For those wanting to change their travel plans to Mexico, many airlines are making it a little easier. American, United, Continental and US Airways are allowing people to change their reservations without penalties; however, they all have different policies.

American Airlines: Waive its usual penalty for changing reservations for anyone traveling to, from or through Mexico from Saturday through May 6. Tickets must be purchased before Saturday.

United Airlines: Passengers who purchased tickets on or before Sunday for travel through April 30 may change their plans without penalty.

Continental Airlines: Offering to waive change fees for passengers traveling to, from or through Mexico City, Puebla and Toluca, Mexico between today and April 28.

US Airways: Waiving the standard change fee, advance reservation and ticketing requirements for customers with Mexico City travel plans through April 30.

Mexicana International: Passengers traveling to Mexico City, or those who are required to catch connecting flights at the Mexico City airport, may reschedule their flights and/or travel dates at no extra charge.

E-mail: hollenhorst@ksl.com

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John Hollenhorst

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