Media Archive

Piscataquis County leads bird flu prevention efforts

Article from Bangor Daily News, Saturday, April 08, 2006

By Diana Bowley
Staff Writer

DOVER-FOXCROFT - Tell Tom Iverson to do something and he jumps, especially when the safety of Piscataquis County residents are concerned.

Although he is one of four part-time emergency management agency directors in the state and likely has the least resources, Iverson is leading his counterparts in developing a pandemic influenza plan, according to state officials."My concern is basically the size of the county and how rural we are," Iverson said this week. "I just want to make sure that we're prepared just in case we do have any reported cases of a possible avian flu or a pandemic flu."

The focus is on H5N1, an avian influenza strain that is viral in nature and currently is circulating in birds in Asia, Africa and Europe. Several hundred people in those countries who had physical contact with infected birds have been sickened from the virus. Experts believe it might mutate into a form that transmits easily from person to person, causing it to become a pandemic threat.

Two factors are needed to become a pandemic: a microbe must have a high mortality rate, which this has; and it must be highly contagious, which this strain is not but easily could become, Dr. Dora Mills, state director of the bureau of health, said this week.

"We expect that [avian flu] might be circulating in birds here in North America by the end of the calendar year. It may, may, may," Mills said, stressing the "may," since there is no way to say for sure if and when it might arrive in the country. "That strain of influenza could explode in a pandemic influenza, or it may not, but because the ingredients are there for it to become a pandemic - that is a worldwide outbreak - we need to be prepared, and that's what we're doing."

Piscataquis County, along with each of the 15 other counties, has been asked to develop by Aug. 1 a comprehensive plan to follow in the event a pandemic occurs. The state expects to receive $818,000 from the federal government to help develop the plans, Mills said.

All but $45,000 of the federal funds will be provided to county emergency management agencies and to critical stakeholders to assure they can attend planning meetings, according to Mills.

"We want to make sure that all the various stakeholders are able to come to the table to help plan in their counties for this," she said. These stakeholders include hospitals, law enforcement, schools, universities, health centers, social service agencies, mental health services and agencies that work with the disabled and elderly. The state bureau will use the $45,000 for its planning for the pandemic.

Mills said the state expects additional funds from the federal government later to be used to exercise the plans.

Maine is doing well in its preparation for such a pandemic, according to Mills.

"We are much more prepared than we were six months ago and six years ago," she said. The health bureau is working closely with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to strengthen public health infrastructure.

And the counties are playing a role as well, according to Art Cleaves, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

"It's easy for us to be complacent because we don't have a lot of disasters, but it's so very important for us be prepared in the event an emergency does strike," Cleaves said this week. "We need to strike the right balance on emergency planning."

And the assistance from county officials like Iverson plays an important role, according to Cleaves.

"He's very much in the front. He jumped right on it," Cleaves said of Iverson's role to prepare a pandemic plan.

He is the first one in the state to start a focus on coordination, he said.

Iverson has enlisted the help of Dr. Ben Kittredge to serve as a county coordinator and has scheduled the first meeting to discuss the plan at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 27, in the Piscataquis County Superior courtroom in Dover-Foxcroft.

Iverson is just what the state needs at the county level, the MEMA director said.

"He's done an outstanding job in getting the coordination elements started," Cleaves said of Iverson. "He's got the right balance of knowledge in how and what pressure to put on local officials to get them to focus on emergency planning."

"We are much more prepared than we were six months ago and six years ago."

Dr. Dora Mills, state director of the bureau of health

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