On Friday, May 1, Marsha Kenny the director of marketing for Southampton Hospital said there were no confirmed cases of H1N1 Influenza A, commonly referred to as swine flu, in the county. By the time Monday rolled around, however, there were four confirmed cases, including three children from Deer Park.
News of the flu’s spread from Mexico to the U.S. has dominated the media in recent weeks and the outbreak has been likened to the 1918 pandemic of Spanish Influenza. Although the tally of confirmed national cases has climbed to 642, resulting in two deaths, local health officials say the deadliness of swine flu has been largely over-hyped.
“I think to some extent it is a media phenomenon — to another extent severe infectious diseases have cropped up periodically throughout history and have caused tremendous illness. I think we are all wondering when the next shoe will be dropped,” said Dr. Fred Weinbaum, chief medical officer at Southampton Hospital. “I think bio-terrorism created the mindfulness for catastrophe. That and the modern world is shrinking. We are linked by only a few days.”
Weinbaum added that the Spanish flu, which killed millions, was significantly more virulent than today’s swine flu. Most flu strains attack humans with a weak immune system, like children and the elderly. The Spanish flu, however, triggered a hyper-immune response and afflicted healthy individuals ranging in ages from 20 to 40 years old.
The swine flu, said Weinbaum, shares more similarities with the common seasonal flu. For instance, the symptoms for both strains are relatively the same and include fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue and vomiting. Like the seasonal flu, swine flu is a respiratory illness. But unlike the common flu, Southampton Hospital officials say “the swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs that has changed its genetic composition to become a respiratory virus transmitted from person to person.”
They added, however, that the virus couldn’t be spread through eating cooked pork products.
If the swine flu reaches pandemic proportions, Kenny says the hospital is prepared and has an established emergency protocol. Weinbaum added that the Center for Disease Control would most likely dip into its stockpile of Tamiflu, a treatment for the virus, which would be distributed through local health departments to hospitals.
In the meantime, Weinbaum said Southampton Hospital is focusing their efforts on disseminating accurate and up-to-date information to the local community.
“I think the only preparation we can do is working together with local and state health authorities,” Weinbaum reported. “It’s more about getting information rapidly distributed. We are trying to dispel rumors and a sense of panic. We are trying to keep everyone from reaching conclusions based on hearsay and rumor.”
On Friday, Weinbaum held a conference call with local superintendents concerned about what to do if a student contracts swine flu. Weinbaum encouraged parents to keep their children home if they are sick, and said the same goes for school staff. He added that closing a school should be a collaborative decision between the state department of health, the county department of health and the school board. The New York State Department of Health has set-up a 24-hour toll-free hotline, at (800) 808-1987, to handle public concerns. Locally, Sag Harbor School District has posted an alert about swine flu on its website and the elementary school has distributed a letter to parents asking them to keep sick children at home.
It would appear the swine flu outbreak has yet to touch Sag Harbor directly, aside from interfering with one resident’s travel plans. Cati Van Milders was planning to spend this week in Mexico for a retreat, but it was canceled at the last minute because of the flu.
Asked if she would travel to Mexico anyway, Van Milders said, “No I wouldn’t have gone. I was a little apprehensive about being stuck on the plane and picking up something.”