RICHLAND -- Community health and emergency leaders have a new tool available to fight flu pandemics, thanks to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.
Researchers have developed a computer desktop system that takes what science knows about how the flu spreads to help health and emergency management officials quickly predict what might happen in their county.
It also lets them plug in different responses -- such as closing schools -- to see how each would change the spread of illness.
"No single approach provides an optimal strategy when battling the spread of a pandemic," said Robert Brigantic, operations research scientist at the lab.
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But the new planning tool can give those who make the decisions about how and when to respond in each county a more scientific look at how different decisions could affect an outbreak.
An early prototype of the system was used this fall in an emergency exercise in Walla Walla County to practice response to a flu pandemic.
"The tool illustrated how essential services can fail when critical employees became ill," said Gary Ernst, director of emergency management for the county, in a statement. "Visualizing possible disease progression enables us to consider how many critical personnel may be unavailable at one time and plan accordingly."
The system grew out of an earlier project at the national lab for the Department of Homeland Security to help develop a nationwide strategy for the avian flu. It was intended as a planning tool to consider different scenarios and what resources would be needed, including hospital beds, vaccine doses and medications.
Because of that project, Purdue University in Indiana gave Brigantic a $50,000 grant to develop a Pandemic Influenza Planning Tool to be used by Indiana in its planning exercises for a flu pandemic. It has since been demonstrated to public health officials in Washington state and emergency officials in Los Angeles County in California.
It's ready now to be used at the county level in Washington for what Brigantic calls a "quick look" to help develop an aggressive preventive strategy and decide how best to use limited resources.
Those preparing for flu outbreaks can use it to assess the affect of different action as flu spreads across the state. Actions include when to close schools, distributing vaccine and antiviral medications, and working with the media to spread messages, such as limiting attendance and public events.
It also can help them plan how many hospital beds will be needed, so they might have rollaway beds available or alternate sites where flu patients might be treated.
If more money is available, Brigantic would like to expand the system's capabilities to predict the effects of "social distancing." That includes actions such as more telecommuting, canceling social events and imposing quarantines.
He'd also like to look at how behavior influences pandemics, such as at what point people are worried enough about the flu that when school is canceled parents keep children home rather than taking them to the mall.
Work also is continuing to make the underlying algorithms in the system more sophisticated and precise and to incorporate input from public health and emergency management officials.
Brigantic and his team also are working on a related simulation analysis for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish effective and efficient screening for pandemic flu for passengers arriving in the United States on international flights.
It will look at the staffing and equipment needed for different options, such as one-on-one interviews and thermal image scans for those with fevers, to figure not only what resources are required by the effectiveness of screening plans.
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org.