With flu season looming, lawmakers and health officials gathered Tuesday to study how prepared the National Capital Region is for the potential outbreak of pandemic influenza.
And those officials think they are ready to cope with a pandemic — as ready as they can be, anyway.
While a major terrorist attack or natural disaster would certainly inflict major damage on the region, the threat of pandemic flu is particularly daunting because it would be widespread and could last months, officials noted.
And during the influx of a pandemic, there could be sudden shortages of workers in important sectors, from health care providers to federal staffers to first responders to transportation employees.
Still, regional and federal officials appeared confident Tuesday, telling the panel they believe the proper preparations have been made to handle a flu crisis.
“I think we’ve taken all the steps we possibly can to be ready,” said Darrell Darnell, the director of the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
But Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) didn’t appear entirely convinced.
Akaka, who presided over the hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia, praised officials for the work they have done. But he also said the region should develop a strategic plan to deal with pandemic flu, similar to preparation for terrorist attacks and natural disasters.
“Strategic plans are just the first step,” Akaka said. “These plans must be tested. Through repeated training and exercising, weaknesses can be found and improvements can be made.”
On Capitol Hill, officials say they are ready, with plans in place to ensure the government remains up and running during a pandemic.
As regional government entities work together, officials from the Senate, House and Office of Attending Physician all are involved in planning for a flu pandemic, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said in an interview.
“We’re actually comfortable that we could perform the functions that need to be done to support Senate operations,” Gainer said.
Options such as allowing employees to telecommute are among the ideas that would be considered during a flu pandemic, Gainer said.
“We have rehearsed a variety of scenarios,” Gainer said. “We’re prepared for a little thing, a medium-size thing and a big thing.”
Flu pandemics occur when a virus to which people have little or no immunity emerges. It then quickly spreads from person to person and can cause serious illness or death.
Experts admit it is hard to predict when the next pandemic will be — the last major flu pandemic is generally considered to be the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919, which killed 40 million people worldwide.
In recent years, health experts have been closely monitoring H5N1 (commonly known as avian flu), a dangerous virus that mainly has occurred in birds but also has been found in humans.
Darnell said D.C. has readied its own pandemic plan should an outbreak emerge. At the same time, District officials are in constant contact with neighboring Virginia and Maryland to maintain a regional plan, which would certainly be necessary if an outbreak took place, he said.
“This type of collaboration is not limited to government entities,” Darnell noted. “The District has developed partnerships with the business community, including building property owners and managers as well as the city’s hospitality industry, in order to enhance preparedness.”
Robert Mauskapf, who directs emergency preparedness for the Virginia Department of Health, said officials in his state actively keep in touch with different entities to prepare for a pandemic, be it flu or another sort of disaster.
Maryland officials did not attend Tuesday’s hearing.
Aside from housing the federal government, the region also faces another unique challenge should a pandemic take place — its high tourist population.
In D.C., health officials regularly are in contact with those who cater to tourists — hotels, tour groups, convention organizers, etc. — to help create a system to monitor visitors and inform them to seek treatment should an outbreak occur, Darnell said.
Additionally, several pandemic flu drills also have taken place throughout the region, with more to come.
On Oct. 17, the city will sponsor an exercise to allow nonprofit groups to test their continuity of operations plans should a pandemic flu outbreak occur. This also will allow regional officials to identify shortfalls in their preparedness, Darnell said.
In Virginia, officials are planning to vaccinate thousands of people against the flu this year, Mauskapf noted. In a few instances, they will do so with mass vaccine exercises, allowing officials to see how quickly they can vaccinate a group of people against the flu virus.
“We will be taking advantage,” Mauskapf said.
With avian flu the prime concern for health officials, efforts have begun to establish and stockpile vaccines against the virus, said Kevin Yeskey, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS officials have made strides toward their goal of stockpiling 40 million doses of a prepandemic vaccine and 600 million doses of a vaccine that would be given to all U.S. citizens should a pandemic be declared, Yeskey said.
Efforts also are under way to stockpile antivirals to treat patients suffering from the virus, Yeskey said.
A major concern among officials is where people would be treated should an outbreak take place.
In Virginia, about 3,600 staffed beds would be added statewide within four hours of a major incident; that capacity would increase to about 5,670 within 24 hours, Mauskapf said.
In the more immediate capital region, about 2,300 beds would be available to be shared among the regional partners — one-third located within the District, Darnell said.
Officials also noted that mobile units, primary care facilities and military bases could potentially serve to treat flu patients.
Hospital beds might not necessarily be the best answer to dealing with a flu crisis, as it could potentially lead to a spread of the virus, Yeskey said.
“Our plan is to keep those people who are infected with pandemic flu, keep them out of the hospital as much as possible,” he said.
Both Darnell and Mauskapf noted that more communication is needed with federal agencies located in the District. It would be helpful to District officials to know under what circumstances federal agencies would send workers home, Darnell said, as the city would need to change its traffic and public transportation patterns.