As of Tuesday afternoon, there were still no confirmed cases of swine flu in Maine, but state and federal public health officials say Mainers must prepare for harder times ahead.
Schools, businesses, hospitals, families and other groups that have prepared disaster plans specific to a long-predicted global influenza epidemic should enact those plans now, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
On a personal level, that means households should stock up on enough food, water, medications and other necessities to last “a few days,” Mills said. The extra supplies will help families and individuals weather personal illness without leaving home. A widespread epidemic also could temporarily affect the availability of some household staples.
“Maine families should prepare for this as if it were a blizzard,” Mills advised at a press conference Tuesday in Augusta.
Mills said the state public health laboratory in Augusta has tested “a few dozen” specimens for swine flu since Sunday. As of Tuesday evening, all have been negative, but many public health officials expect the virus to spread to every state in the nation within days.
An advisory issued Tuesday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to prepare for “community mitigation” and “social distancing” measures such as home isolation of sick individuals, school closures and the cancellation of large gatherings.
The Maine Department of Education has told all school nurses and superintendents to be vigilant about student health in the coming days and weeks. The federal CDC recommends temporarily closing any school where a case of swine flu is confirmed in a student or staff member.
Every hospital in Maine has “dusted off” its pandemic influenza plan, according to Kathy Knight, director of the Northeast Regional Resource Center in Brewer. The resource center is one of three publicly funded emergency preparedness centers in Maine charged with coordinating disaster response within their regions and across the state.
Knight said Tuesday that hospitals could enact measures ranging from establishing emergency command centers to enforcing stricter guidelines for wearing paper masks to protect patients and staff.
“Right now, most of the work is going on behind the scenes,” she said.
Maine businesses “are not shrugging off” concerns about the worsening epidemic, said Dana Connors of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Many businesses have developed a pandemic flu plan and some are considering restricting employee travel, providing workplace nursing consultations for workers, and encouraging employees to practice careful hand-washing and to stay home if they become ill.
“Even smaller businesses are taking this quite seriously,” Connors said.
Tom Robertson, director of the Penobscot County Emergency Management Agency, said he is in close communication with other county-level agencies as well as the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
His agency is more accustomed to helping Mainers recover from weather-related disasters, he noted.
“In most cases, we jump in and grab people and take them to safety,” he said. “But in this case we’re telling them to stay home.”
The stay-at-home message was echoed by Shannon Cox, executive director of the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross in Bangor.
“We won’t be offering any shelters or emergency meal sites, because the goal this time is to keep people apart,” she said.
If the epidemic becomes severe, Cox added, the Red Cross might deliver food and supplies door-to-door in affected communities.
Common to all these efforts is reinforcement of the message that individuals should stay informed, monitor their own health and practice good hygiene. Bill Miller of Miller Drug in Bangor said sales of alcohol-based hand cleaner and paper facemasks have been brisk in recent days. A number of people have called looking to fill prescriptions for the antiviral Tamiflu, which may help prevent or lessen the symptoms of swine flu, but Miller said he has only a limited supply and doesn’t expect to able to obtain more due to fears about the epidemic.
Miller remains optimistic that the swine flu epidemic won’t be as bad as many fear, in part because he believes people will practice the recommended safeguards.
“People are paying a lot of attention to this,” he said. “We live in a very sanitary country.”