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Berlin Public Health Dept. prepares for swine flu

July 29, 2009
BERLIN — The Berlin Health Department is gearing up for a possible reemergence of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, once the school year begins.

"It's important for us to be prepared," said Laura Viger, health department director. "It's a real public health situation."

The state saw 232 cases of swine flu from the start of the outbreak through early July. No cases were reported in Cos County, but local, state and federal officials are working together to prepare for the onset of the flu season.

Mrs. Viger said the department is preparing for two flu viruses at once: traditional seasonal flu and the H1N1 virus. They have different vaccines, but simple precautions protect against both.

"We don't wash our hands enough," she said. "Really wash your hands. Get down into your fingers." She suggested singing "Happy Birthday" slowly while washing; that's how long it should take.

If you don't feel well, she said, stay home from work. "If you're really sick you're not going to get into trouble."

Other precautions are sneezing into a tissue, your sleeve or your elbow instead of your hand. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after sneezing or coughing. And avoid close contact with sick people or objects they have touched.

"It's not a knife in the heart," Mrs. Viger said, "but it's dangerous."

Should an outbreak occur the health department has an emergency vaccination plan for the region. They would set up a point of distribution, or a POD, in the high school gym to administer the vaccine in several days time. There the health department, along with a team of volunteers, would vaccinate a selective group of vulnerable people: children under five, adults over 65, people with chronic diseases or immune deficiencies.

The Berlin POD would cover Berlin, Gorham, Milan, Shelburne and Randolph.

The city has run emergency response tests before, Mrs. Viger said, but now it's for a real threat, not a scenario.

"Every time there's a blip like this it's time to test your plans, it's time to test your staffing, it's time to test your funding," she said.

When the virus first appeared there was close coordination between the city, the state and the federal government.

"I was on a conference call every day," she said. "There was great communication back and forth."

Now, even though the virus has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, tensions are lower. The emergency plans are still just plans; they are not being implemented. How the virus spreads will determine how the city reacts.

"We take our directive from the state and the federal government," Mrs. Viger said. If an outbreak occurs, she said, then the plans will be put into action. If not, vaccines will be available at doctor's offices and walk-in clinics.

Either way, Mrs. Viger is confident.

"We're self-sustaining people here in the North Country," she said. "We know we can take care of ourselves. People should be aware and careful but not overreact."

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