Hospitals and other health care providers should start planning now to protect staff in the event of a flu pandemic that officials say is all but inevitable.
But even as it prepares, the state of Georgia is wrestling with questions of when to close schools and businesses or even ration precious medical resources.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration released guidelines Monday for health care workers and facilities on how to protect workers during a flu pandemic.
"Most scientists studying global health risks agree that it is not a question of if, but of when the next pandemic will occur," Edwin Foulke, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said during a teleconference.
The guidelines recommend planning, learning ways to cut down on spreading flu and getting essential supplies that will be in short supply.
Georgia and South Carolina hospitals have flu pandemic plans in place but will take into account the new guidelines.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control will be reviewing the new guidelines, "and then we'll be helping facilities evaluate what is applicable to them and see if there is a way that we can help them comply with the OSHA guidelines," said spokesman Jim Beasley.
But some of the larger issues have not been addressed, said James Wilde, the director of pediatric emergency medicine at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics. He serves on a statewide pandemic flu task force that is discussing when it would be permissible to alter standards of care and how to prioritize scarce resources.
"The nightmare scenario we all talk about is you are in the midst of a very severe pandemic, eight people are in your ER, all in need of a ventilator, you have three ventilators available. Who do you give the ventilators to?" Dr. Wilde said. "The argument is these rationing decisions or at least protocols should be coming from the state and even higher, the federal level."
Georgia hopes to have a plan to present to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by August, said Patrick O'Neal, the medical director of the Office of EMS, Trauma and Emergency Preparedness in the Georgia Division of Public Health. The state also has been working with others, such as the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, to prepare guidelines for closing schools, Dr. O'Neal said.
"It's an extraordinarily comprehensive problem," he said. "I honestly do not think that there is any other health emergency that has quite the scope that pandemic does."
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WHAT YOU CAN DO
Make an emergency health plan with contact numbers and essential medical information for each family member, such as allergies.
Also, get together essential supplies for at least three days and up to two weeks. That should include:
- Enough water to provide a gallon per person per day
- Nonperishable food
- Over-the-counter drugs and prescriptions
- Cleaning supplies and disinfectants
- Batteries, a manual can opener, flashlights and a radio
Source: Georgia Division of Public Health