AUGUSTA, Maine — About 1,400 people thronged the Augusta Civic Center on Thursday, answering the state’s call to prepare for an anticipated resurgence in the number and severity of H1N1 swine flu cases this fall and winter.
Gov. John Baldacci opened the daylong conference, cautioning that although most H1N1 cases so far have been relatively mild “it is better to err on the side of caution and safety.”
Speaking to a capacity crowd that included teachers, school nurses, public health planners, emergency management officials and others from around the state, Baldacci said Maine must prepare to launch a large-scale H1N1 vaccine program this fall and to respond to a potential level of social disruption not seen since the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.
High on the state’s list of priorities is organizing school-based seasonal flu vaccine clinics. A vaccine for the H1N1 flu will not be available until October or later, but Dr. Dora Anne Mills, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said all children and young adults in Maine should be vaccinated against this year’s seasonal influenza as soon as possible. This will help keep them healthy and less likely to become seriously ill if they contract H1N1, which disproportionately targets young people and pregnant women, she said. A number of Maine’s public schools have agreed to organize on-site seasonal vaccine clinics in September, but Mills asked her audience — especially educators and school nurses — to bring more schools on board with the voluntary plan as soon as possible.
Schools and community groups that hold large-scale public vaccine clinics now will theoretically be better prepared to set up again when the H1N1 vaccine becomes available. The H1N1 vaccine is expected to require two doses, one month apart, to be effective. Initially supplies will be limited, Mills said — Maine will likely re-ceive 180,000 doses in mid-October and an additional 80,000 doses weekly after that. The vaccines will be administered first to the most at-risk groups, identified by the U.S. CDC:
— Pregnant women.
— People who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age.
— Health care and emergency services personnel.
— Children and young adults between the ages of 6 months and 24 years.
— Adults 25 to 64 years of age with underlying health problems.
In addition to the school-based clinics, the state will work with communities and health care providers to ensure that those who most need the new vaccine get it. The H1N1 vaccine itself will be free, and Medicare, Medicaid and most private insurers in Maine will pay for the administration of the injections. Some federal funding is available to offset other costs, such as medical supplies and facility rentals, Mills said.
There are an estimated 600,000 Mainers who fall into one or more of the high-risk categories. About a third of them are schoolchildren.
The vaccine campaign is a key element in the state’s plan to minimize the impact of an H1N1 surge this winter, but other measures remain critical as well, Mills said. A vigorous effort to stress the importance of good “respiratory hygiene” must also be launched she said — steps such as covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands, and staying home when sick with flu symptoms.
In addition, families, schools, businesses, health care providers and communities should plan now to cope with a sudden increase in H1N1 cases, Mills said. Schools may close, workplaces may find themselves with a fraction of their usual employees, and hospitals may lose staff to illness just when they most need all available workers, she said.
Break-out sessions at the conference included opportunities to brush up on the proper technique for administering an injectable vaccine; to learn more in-depth information about the H1N1 virus; to review the fundamentals of setting up a large-scale clinic; and to plan on a regional level, implementing the resources of the state’s recently established eight-region public health system.