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The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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County prepares for bird flu

With the threat of avian influenza becoming more apparent, officials in Wood County are developing an emergency response plan for an outbreak to be in place by the end of this year.

Although the chance of a pandemic – or worldwide outbreak of disease – seems minimal right now, organizers are preparing for the worst.

“We are currently, specifically in terms of Wood County, in the process of developing a plan for avian flu,” said Jeff Cooper, Wood County Health Commissioner. “We have a protocol plan in place for the standard flu and we’re modifying to address for avian flu.”

Much of the plan will be modeled after both the state plan and the current national plan, according to Mary Dennis, coordinator of epidemiology for the Wood County Health Department. Plans have been developed in the past for meningitis and bioterrorism threats such as SARS.

The county plan will also be modeled after current emergency plans in the county.

“We have emergency sheltering plans, we have alternative care facility plans, we have mass feeding plans that would all be brought together if – heaven forbid – we have a pandemic flu,” said Eric Larson, director of the Wood County Emergency Management Agency.


Local forces team up

The key to a successful plan is having several local constituents work together, including the Wood County Hospital, Wood County Emergency Management Agency, BGSU and the Wood County Health Department.

“We would work closely together and the concept is to make sure all our resources are on the page and working together,” Cooper said.

Along with inside help, for years mutual aid agreements have been in place in northwest Ohio between counties.

And Ohio now has the Ohio Public Health Communication Systems emergency contact program in place. Through the program officials can send out alerts to all 88 counties in the state, and 138 health departments in case of an emergency.

“Communication is key and that is where public health comes in,” Cooper said. “Where you run into panic is where people don’t know.”

If avian flu did become an epidemic in Wood County, an emergency would be declared by Cooper and the EMA. The health department, along with local government, would request assistance and medication would be flown in, according to Cooper.


Would military step in?

Some of that assistance could come through military force.

In October, President George W. Bush said he would consider using military force to quarantine any area of the country where bird flu might break out.

As incident commander in a biological event for Wood County, Cooper has the authority to declare a quarantine.

“A lot would have to happen for a quarantine to happen,” he said. “Part of it is if it does happen, we know what the process is and are prepared to handle it.”

The pandemic plan will have to account for the approximately 121,000 people in the county, as of 2000, according to the EMA.

That number includes the full enrollment of students at the University, regardless of what time of year the pandemic may occur.

In the case that this many people become ill, the plan will have to take into account care facilities for large amounts of people.

“We have practiced or drilled setting up off-care facility sites,” Cooper said.

The Wood County Hospital has only 1,062 beds for patients – not nearly enough room to house the county’s population – and a staff of 227 physicians.

So other temporary facilities could include high school gyms or cafeterias, and factory cafeterias. Another option would be to send patients to other hospitals in Lucas and Hancock counties.

“There are a huge number of beds in the city of Toledo,” said Glenn Egelman, director of Student Health Services. “I have almost no concerns about the transportation. Our infrastructure can manage it between Wood County and Toledo.”


Planning at BGSU

In the case of an influenza pandemic, buildings with central heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, providing independent air flow and control, would be utilized as temporary treatment facilities.

Ventilation helps move air – and the germs or viruses that float around in it – out of a building, continually bringing fresh air in. BGSU has 32 buildings with such systems.

While the Student Health Center doesn’t house patients they have six doctors, seven nurses practitioners, six nurses and four medical assistants on hand.

The Student Health Services staff periodically practices an emergency drill to alert all staff members in case of an emergency. According to Egelman, at the October drill staff were all notified of the alert within 30 to 45 minutes.

In other terms of preparation, officials have learned from past mistakes made elsewhere – most recently the hurricanes down south.

“If we need to we can marshall our forces and work as a team,” Cooper said. “We’ve worked very hard in Wood County to prevent a scenario like what happened on the Gulf Coast.”

In addition, emergency response plans and the technology they use have come a great way since 9/11, according to Cooper.

“Public health prior to 2001 was not prepared to handle emergency situations,” he said. “In an emergency situation you don’t have two to three days to set up this. We have come a long way in those four years.”

While an avian bird flu pandemic is still a longshot in America, having emergency planning at BGSU that encompasses many scenarios may be most effective, according to Egelman.

“The University has disaster plans that never finalized because there is always something new,” he said. “You can’t come up with a plan for everything. You need a basic structure for planning.”

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