Laptops, dirty laundry and textbooks can already be found in every dormitory, but students should make room for surgical masks and gloves in the event of an influenza pandemic, according to public health officials.
A panel of five public health directors discussed planning for what they called an “impending” influenza pandemic at the Yale School of Public Health on Wednesday. Attended by about 15 physicians, nurses and New Haven residents, the event — sponsored by the Yale Center for Public Health Preparedness — addressed the ethical and logistical dilemmas that the imminent outbreak poses for health agencies at both the state and local levels.
Focusing on the importance of collaboration between federal and regional health agencies, the panelists discussed the major obstacles to providing health care in case of a pandemic and the actions currently being taken by each of their agencies.
Pandemic influenza can occur when a new flu virus emerges for which the population has little or no immunity. Once a pandemic begins, it causes serious illness and spreads easily, rapidly and globally. The speakers said a new pandemic influenza is a certainty — the question is no longer if it is going to happen, but when.
One of the concerns in planning for an outbreak is the inadequacy of medical facilities and supplies, said William Quinn, director of health for the New Haven Health Department. Currently, health care systems do not have the capacity to care for all the infected people who will be in need of medical attention, he said, and health agencies at the local level do not have enough financial or vaccination resources.
“At the local level, we’re trying to do what we can with very little federal guidance,” Quinn said. “We probably will have a pandemic, but we most likely won’t have any vaccine or antivirals because only two pharmaceutical companies are making them.”
In anticipation of this shortage of resources, speakers said public health agencies are preparing to use policies of “social distancing” in which infected individuals are isolated and cared for at home in order to stop the disease from spreading exponentially.
But Judy Madeux, deputy director of Yale University Health Services, said this solution of social distancing proves problematic for universities because students live in close, unsanitary dormitory conditions. She said one of the major questions facing universities across Connecticut right now is when to close schools in the event of a pandemic.
“As far as school closing triggers, we’ve made a decision at Yale to close very early,” she said. “If there’s rapid person-to-person transmission on a large scale, we will close.”
But some Yale students said they do not see the same imminent threat of a pandemic that public health officials do. Although students said they were aware of the possibility, they do not feel like they are at risk.
“Honestly, there’s been so much talk about it and nothing has happened that it seems far removed,” community health educator Katie Johnson ’07 said. “I feel like people don’t really think about it that much here, but at the same time they probably should.”
The discussion was the first in a series of public health seminars focused on providing education and training to the public health work force.
Other speakers on the panel were Mary Jane Engle, director of health for the Connecticut River Valley Health District, Robert Kenny, from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, and Karen Spargo, from the Naugatuck Valley Health District.