County prepares for outbreak

As many as 200,000 area residents could be infected with bird flu in the event a pandemic strikes the Bay Area, hospital and Health Department officials in the county reported Thursday.

The overwhelming numbers, equivalent to about one in three people, came from a countywide exercise to prepare for a worst-case scenario. A pandemic on that scale could force hospitals to close to new patients, shut down schools and have far-reaching impacts on government services and the economy, officials said.

While all county hospitals have plans to deal with an epidemic, as many as 30 percent of the county’s medical staff and first responders could contract the flu or call in sick under some scenarios, leaving a shortage of personnel.

“When you hear the doom and gloom, they’re not pulling any punches,” said Lt. John Quinlan, director of emergency services and homeland security in San Mateo County, of the exercise. “We’re planning for the worst, but hoping for the best.”

Officials from San Francisco International Airport, the likeliest point of entry for avian flu in the area, were on hand for yesterday’s exercise, along with regional coordinators for fire, ambulance, law enforcement, cities and schools.

A day earlier, San Francisco held its own seminar on preparedness for emergencies, including a flu pandemic, radiological bomb attack or major earthquake. Prioritization of health supplies, use of city facilities for medical treatment and issues of quarantine were discussed, San Francisco Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Adleman said.

Holding the San Mateo County exercise — which was scheduled to be earthquake-focused until a couple of months ago — just two days after the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake illustrates how serious area officials believe the threat is, Quinlan said.

Part of the challenge of planning for an avian flu pandemic is that there is no geographic scene for emergency responders to report to, said Dr. Brian Zamora, public health director for San Mateo County. “For the first time a natural disaster will be driven [almost exclusively] by health concerns,” Zamora said. “It’s something you can’t see.”

Because of the invisible nature of a flu pandemic, communication with the public will be a high priority. “We don’t want people surprised. We don’t want people scared,” Zamora said. “We want them to know we know what’s going on.”

ecarpenter@examiner.comBay Area NewsLocal

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