If there's an influenza pandemic in your lifetime, be prepared to do things you don't like doing, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Health warns.

UDOH has posted online the state's preparedness plan for an influenza pandemic. Department officials hope the public will read it and take the time to provide comments.

The plan, which is the result of task force meetings and study sessions, includes community-gathering restrictions that could close schools, disrupt sporting events and create havoc in the work schedules of parents who must care for their children. But it's all necessary, said UDOH spokeswoman Charla Haley, for the community's wellbeing during pandemic flu.

"Our plans are similar to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations after they studied the pandemic of 1918. There were cities that had amazingly little impact, because they basically shut down," she said.

Those that were hardest hit included cities that tried to conduct business as usual.

An influenza pandemic is a worldwide outbreak caused by a flu virus to which few or no humans have immunity. There were three last century, the harshest in 1918, with more than a half-million deaths just in the United States. Health officials predict a similarly harsh pandemic could sicken as many as a million Utahns and kill 16,000.

Should one occur, health officials expect schools would be asked to close for as long as six weeks. "That could have a huge impact on parents being able to go to work and conduct their own lives," Haley said.

The state also would ban youths gathering in one place, so no more meeting at the mall, she said. "In pandemic, it's not safe to go anywhere, not only for those who aren't sick, but to keep those who are from infecting others."

Public health officials are still grappling with some issues, Haley said. If you close public schools, do you also close colleges? If you do, where do the students go? So many come from out of state. "Do you send them home?" she asks.

Worker absenteeism because of illness or to care for children could have a big impact during pandemic, as well. "In some cases, businesses may have to shut down," Haley said. And it's not just the problem of no work, no paycheck, but spreads to "what you will find at the grocery store or when you go to buy gas. I think we're hoping some businesses will figure out ways to help employees telecommute and keep things going without impacting other people."

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Development of an appropriate vaccine is high on the to-do list once a pandemic occurs, but that will take some time. In the meantime, health officials and the public will have to rely on willingness to "make some pretty substantial changes in day-to-day life," said state epidemiologist Dr. Robert Rolfs.

"We hope people will look at the restrictions, learn about what they'll need to do during the next pandemic and tell us if we need to make any changes for this plan to work," he said in a release announcing the public comment period.

The state plan is online at pandemicflu.utah.gov.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com