The director of Carroll County's Health Department urged officials yesterday to prepare for the possibility of an influenza pandemic that could cause enormous numbers of illnesses and fatalities.
According to the World Health Organization, widespread illness could cause sudden, significant shortages of personnel trained in essential community services.
"When this hits, it could be the greatest challenge we have had to face," said Larry L. Leitch, Carroll's health director.
The county should thoroughly assess its staff and train employees for tasks that are critical to public health, he said. The positions would include operators of water and sewage treatment plants, emergency service workers and health care providers.
"We are talking about a flu that could literally affect everyone in the world, making it difficult for countries to share resources," Leitch said. "Experts feel we are definitely headed for that. Nobody knows how bad it will be, but long-term there will be problems with people not coming to work."
Pandemic flu struck three times during the 20th century, with the worst occurrence in 1918, when the virus killed 20 million people worldwide. The virus is cyclical, occurring about every 35 years. It generally affects the working population, Leitch said. Of particular concern is an Asian flu strain that Leitch called worrisome.
"It is a virulent strain that has remained largely in poultry, but when it has gotten into humans, the mortality is nearly 70 percent," he said.
Vaccines, antiviral drugs and antibiotics to treat secondary infections will most likely be in short supply, according to the WHO.
"As health officials, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to better prepare ourselves," Leitch said. "In 1918, it took the flu four months to travel around the world. With today's jet travel, it would take four days. It will hit quickly, and it will be difficult to get vaccines."
The county is developing a plan for continuity of operations in the event of a natural disaster or terrorism. The plan, initiated at the request of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will identify people who can fill in for critical jobs and prioritize tasks, said Steven D. Powell, the county Board of Commissioners' chief of staff.
"We are doing a thorough assessment of the abilities of all our staff to ensure that we have operators to manage all our systems," Powell said.
Leitch's warning "adds a new bent to our concerns," Powell said.
The planning process has led the county to purchase large generators for several school buildings so those facilities can serve as shelters and possible operations centers, Powell said. Leitch's comments came as a result of calls from county staff trying to make ready for any emergency, Powell said.
"This plan is an attempt to prepare for any contingency," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.