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Public not ready for grim realities of health-care in a flu pandemic: experts

MINNEAPOLIS (CP) - Health-care delivery during a flu pandemic won't be remotely like current standards of care - and the public isn't prepared for that fact, leaders from the health-care sector warned Wednesday at a conference on business continuity planning for a pandemic.
Supplies of medical gloves, masks and other standard items will run out, several speakers bluntly predicted. So too will hospital beds and respirators. Tough choices may have to be made over the use of simple items such as syringes.

"We are going to run out of things we're not used to running out of," said Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary for public health and emergency preparedness in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Asked if he felt members of the public were aware of what health care might actually entail during a pandemic, Simonson was frank: "My sense is no."

He said the U.S. government is currently funding a project designed to see if disposable hospital masks can be reused, or if there is some safe way to use them for a longer period of time.

Another part of the project is looking at what might fill the gap should the supply of masks dry up, including "good, old-fashioned muslin" and other, newer fabrics, Simonson said in an interview.

"There's no percentage in not doing this work," he said, noting if a severe and prolonged flu pandemic occurred, global supplies of hospital goods would dry up. "Now is the time to figure all that out."

Simonson was speaking at a two-day meeting on pandemic planning for businesses staged by the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Dorothy Teeter, interim director of the public health department for Seattle, Wash., said hospitals typically have on hand three to five days' worth of medical supplies. Hospitals in Seattle - considered one of the leaders in pandemic planning in the U.S. - are looking at stockpiling some basic medical supplies, things like IV (intravenous) tubes and syringes.

"If it's three days' worth of supplies, that's not enough," she said.

Teeter said in Seattle, where planning work has been ongoing for the past two years, there are 3,500 licensed hospital beds. The mathematical modelling the public health department is relying on suggests 57,000 people in the city may need hospital care during a pandemic - and that's in addition to those who would normally need hospital care for non-pandemic related illnesses.

"The hospital capacity is simply flat out not the answer. So people are going to have to understand there will be a very different system in place," she said.

"And we have to plan it now so we can educate the public. They become more resilient, they understand what that looks like. You as businesses can tell your employees 'Here's what you can expect,' and we go forwards.

"If you don't tell that truth, I think we'll have a social unrest problem that we perhaps could avoid if we did tell the truth."

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