Make plans for bird flu, officials urge

LAWRENCEVILLE - Part of Gail Macrenaris' job is to spur Gwinnett businesses to implement disaster preparedness plans in the event of a bird flu, but she is even more serious about emergency planning in her personal life.

Last year around Christmas, Macrenaris and her two adult daughter began discussing what they would do if a pandemic disrupted society for several months, as public health officials predict.

As a liaison for her employer, the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, to the Gwinnett Department of Homeland Security, Macrenaris already knew how catastrophic the worldwide spread of a virus could become.

Since she can easily work from home, Macrenaris agreed to care for her three grandchildren if public school were canceled and her daughters have to work.

She has enough food, water and essential supplies to endure three months of isolation in her Berkeley Lake home, plus a backup whole-house generator, air mattresses, copies of the entire family's medical records and extra doses of necessary prescription medication.

Officials say a little advance planning can go a long way toward easing strain when and if a bird flu pandemic hits.

Avian influenza is caused by viruses that normally infect birds, but if the virus ever spreads to humans, experts say it will be a new strain to which no one is immune.

In Gwinnett alone, there may be anywhere from 267 to 621 deaths and between 943 and 2,189 hospitalizations, said Maj. Alan Doss, director of Gwinnett County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. The last major pandemic in 1918 was a global disaster in which more than 20 million people died.

Steps being taken to prepare for an outbreak include organizing volunteer groups, government agencies, businesses, health care providers and faith-based organizations that can reach into their respective communities to educate or administer aid.

These different groups began meeting regularly earlier this month, and leaders converged again Tuesday for another planning and response session at Gwinnett Technical College.

County officials agree the most important message to the public is for individuals to gather enough supplies to hunker down in their homes if needed and make contingency plans at their workplace in case a large percentage of the work force becomes ill.

This will help minimize social and economic disruption and preserve life, Doss said.

"While you can't prepare perfectly, any preparations will help," said Dr. Lloyd Hofer, director of the East Metro Health Division. "The message is pretty much to prepare, and it's a low-tech message that is very hard to sell."

Mike Mester, associate program director of the Gwinnett Community Emergency Response Team, agreed.

"Instead of working on the panacea, let's take our own slice of the pie and educate our own friends and families, and let them do the same," Mester said.

For more information about the pandemic flu, including an emergency preparedness checklist and tips to limit spread of germs and prevent infection, go to www.pandemicflu.gov, the official U.S. government Web site managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

To volunteer to help with community disaster response, visit the Web site for Gwinnett County CERT at www.gwinnettcert.org or call 770-513-5830.