Middle Georgia officials hold pandemic flu forum

Local officials and representatives from the area’s medical, public health and business communities participated in a forum Tuesday evening about pandemic flu preparedness in Macon and Bibb County.

The free, public event was held at Macon State College and included a panel discussion with health experts from the North Central Health District, The Medical Center of Central Georgia, Macon area physicians and the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency.

“This is an opportunity to share information that we think is important but also to allow residents to bring their information to the table,” said LaTravius Smith, an operations officer at the Macon-Bibb EMA.

Fewer than 10 residents attended the event.

Smith said following a directive from Gov. Sonny Perdue, city officials pushed for increased flu prevention training for city employees.

“Following a City Council resolution regarding city plans and operations in the event of a pandemic outbreak, Mayor Robert Reichert had implemented revolving flu training,” she said. “Our employees know what to do should they get sick or should a co-worker get sick.”

Perdue, Smith said, also mandated that the collective of public service providers be formed to develop a plan for responding to a pandemic situation.

“We need to do this in advance in order to guarantee that citizens’ health concerns be addressed and that vital services — police, fire and sanitation services — not be interrupted,” she said. “We want to ensure people that your community leaders are doing something.

Andrew Blascovich, spokesman for the mayor, said Reichert has refocused the training following the recent swine flu outbreak.

“Our departments have gone through training to be specifically prepared for the uniqueness of a pandemic,” he said. “In light of the swine flu, Mayor Reichert made a point to become informed on what our departments need to do to keep our government operating.”

Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena said regional law enforcement will play a major role in managing a large-scale health emergency.

“In essence since 9/11, there’s been a group that’s met. What you’ve got is a collage of medical and law enforcement personnel. We would really have to put out a lot of information to the public,” he said.

“I think people have recognized the danger that this pandemic, swine flu, whatever you want to call it represents,” Modena said. “We’re taking that pretty serious.”

Macon-Bibb County District Fire Chief Donnie Mercer said the fire department has developed a strategy to operate at a restricted capacity.

“We know right now which fire stations we’ll be able to shut and move, and which we would not,” he said.

“I think we’re ready,” said Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency Director Johnny Wingers. “The only thing that concerns me is the food chain and we’re looking into that.”

The local medical community began to study and prepare for the pandemic flu about five years ago, said Lee Oliver, director of emergency services at the Medical Center.

“While we have not faced a pandemic here in Macon yet, I think a lot of people lose focus of the fact that every year over 30,000 people die of the flu. If we continue to get the message out — not only preparedness for a pandemic, but preparedness and protection for the seasonal flu — then we’re continuing to protect more of the population.”

District Heath Director Dr. David Harvey said he supports the effort “to inform the public, alleviate the panic and help keep families safe and healthy.”

He also shed some light on the progress of this year’s flu vaccine.

“The vaccine for the seasonal flu is under development now and will be ready for September. Every year, it mutates and sometimes more often that. The vaccines may be perfect for what we see in April or May and then it’s changed by fall,” he said. “But we think it will be better matched because they’ve broadened the coverage.”

Bibb County Commissioner Bert Bivins was optimistic about the information presented at the forum.

“I’m encouraged by what I see from our organizations here tonight,” he said. “My primary concern is that we have to continue to get the public better informed. I think our effort now is to get better involvement from the public: What people should do at home. What people should do if they get sick at work or at school. There’s just so many things that we need to start to practice.”

To contact writer Ashley Tusan Joyner, call 744-4347.