On Thursday afternoon, we’ll get the official “swine flu de-brief” from Public Health-Seattle & King County. What will be the lessons learned? Dr. David Fleming, the agency’s director, offered a possible preview back on May 4th, at a panel in Seattle hosted by the Washington Global Health Alliance (and televised by TVW).
It seems everyone involved with pandemic flu planning has been praising the response to this outbreak. Fleming said, “Boy, planning is really paying off.” He was comparing the government reaction to anthrax and SARS outbreaks few years back, and noting that this time there was more “rational communication.”
But I don’t think the public perception is quite so triumphal. People were confused and they see officials as being confused. While the response may be much better than it would have been a decade ago, does it live up to the expectations of today? After millions of dollars have been spent on pandemic flu planning, was this response good enough?
Here are a few points from the panel that struck me:
- At the peak of concern, supplies of Tamiflu were depleted at some health care centers in King County, and Public Health had to distribute some doses from the national strategic stockpile — and this was a mild strain of flu.
- Fleming acknowledged, “We planned for the wrong disease, a global pandemic of great severity,” or a high death rate. But it turned out to be a milder strain of flu.
- This strain of H1N1 spread much faster than anyone anticipated. That means the information communicated to the public has been way behind what’s actually happening in the community. On the other hand, officials are trying not to speculate in public, and offer assurances before they’re certain about what’s happening.
- Children and schools were a major source of transmission for this outbreak — which may have lessons for vaccinations next fall. (A point made by Dr. Kathy Neuzil, of PATH and U.W.)
- Agricultural workers may be a weak-link in the global surveillance system, since flu viruses can jump more easily than many realize from poultry or swine to people. There’s now system for tracking illness among these workers. (From Ann Marie Kimball, an epidemiologist at U.W.)