The Utah Department of Health has an influenza pandemic action plan. But public health officials are the first to admit that a lot of issues will be out of their control when a pandemic occurs.

Pandemic affects everyone, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Robert Rolfs, and they need to be a part of the planning.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. responded to the plea by forming a task force that includes not only health experts, but private enterprise, law enforcement and others. The 36-member "Pandemic Influenza Preparation" task force will hold its first meeting Thursday morning at the Governor's Mansion.

Utah Department of Health executive director Dr. David Sundwall and Dr. James Mason, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will co-chair the panel.

The issues they'll address are "important enough we felt they deserve community-wide attention," said Rolfs, who added the recommendations of the panel will likely make changes in the state's pandemic influenza plan.

"If some of those issues require changes in the law or the budget, it seemed like a good idea to have a high-level group of community leaders reviewing it and hopefully bringing attention to the issues," he said.

The group will tackle at least six issues, Rolfs said:

• Creating a credible and effective decision-making process;

• Measuring and boosting the capacity of the health care system to care for sick people during a pandemic;

• Determining what needs to be done so that essential business, government and infrastructure functions aren't disrupted;

• How to support the large number of people who would be confined at home because they were sick or were exposed to sickness;

• Whether to purchase and how to use an antiviral stockpile; and

• How to use a vaccine when it becomes available.

Experts predict between 20 percent and 40 percent of people would be out of work or school because of illness during a pandemic, which is likely to last from six to 10 weeks in any community, while occurring in others around the country at pretty much the same time.

"It will slow down business," Rolfs said. "It will be a challenge to keep police and fire trucks and others on the street. It will severely affect the health care system." The projections on the more serious scenario, like the pandemic in 1918, would be an overwhelmed health care system. A less severe pandemic, like those that occurred in 1957 and 1968, would still stress the system to the limits, he said.

All the players have compelling reasons for caring. The health care system will be expected to take care of all the ill and they "feel like they have an almost unmeetable task, should this happen," Rolfs said. "They want people to understand that and think about what it would be like."

Businesses want to keep making money, while schools have a special interest because they are where influenza tends to spread most efficiently.

Concerns about avian flu have raised the profile of pandemic preparedness, but the truth, Rolfs said, is that it may or may not turn into a pandemic. However, history clearly shows that there will always be something coming up that does change; pandemics happen periodically, on a somewhat predictable schedule. And even non-pandemic flu kills about 26,000 to 40,000 people people a year.

Each task force meeting will tackle two of the issues. Members are also being given background papers on each of them, along with some decision points to consider. "We're asking them to advise us on this," Rolfs said. Their recommendations and input will be part of a reworking of the state's influenza plan.

The state's pandemic health plan is online at www.pandemicflu.utah.gov.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com