Bird flu might not have reached the United States yet, but in Ramsey County the ice arenas will be ready if it arrives in its most deadly form.
Nobody will be skating, however.
The hockey rinks are slated to serve as cold storage for the bodies of deceased flu victims if a worst-case scenario comes to pass and surplus morgue space at medical examiners’ offices and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is full or unavailable.
“Is the likelihood high that will happen? No,” said Rob Fulton, the county’s public health director. “But we have to have a plan for a worst-case scenario so that if it happens, we’re not caught in a Katrina-like situation like the feds were (in post-hurricane New Orleans). We have to be prepared.”
Ramsey County is one of nine local agencies that will lead efforts to respond to a public health emergency in the Twin Cities area. The County Board on Tuesday began in earnest a five-week public discussion kicking off official preparations for a pandemic illness, whether bird flu or something else.
Pandemics occur periodically, but the current concerns are elevated by the global spread of the H5N1 influenza virus among birds. The lethal virus has not yet shown potential to spread from human to human, but scientists believe such a mutation is possible.
The discussion also coincided with the release Tuesday of the state’s updated draft plan to respond to a pandemic. That blueprint anticipates 1.5 million Minnesotans will fall ill and 3,600 will die in a worst-case scenario.
Commissioners in the Pawlenty administration stressed that the plan will rely on local preparation and support from the Legislature.
Pawlenty has made a three-year budget request for $31.5 million. But Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno warned that House and Senate budget proposals call for only 10 percent to 20 percent of the recommended funding.
DFL leaders took issue with the Republican administration’s characterizations that the state is nonetheless on track to deal with such an emergency — short of having adequate funding to implement its plan.
“Right now, we’re not prepared,” said House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul. He said DFL alternatives included creating a strict timetable for bird flu planning and accelerating state funding.
Ramsey County officials said that they’re making what preparations they can, like determining what supplies can be stockpiled and working out the legal steps for measures such as quarantine and isolation. Healthy people, suspected of having been exposed to a dangerous communicable disease, could be ordered confined to their homes for as long as 31 days under state law.
Robert Einweck, emergency preparedness coordinator with Ramsey County’s public health agency, said that such steps are unlikely to halt a pandemic and further measures — like travel restrictions and banning public gatherings — might be necessary.
“In 1918, they canceled the Stanley Cup playoffs,” he told county commissioners, referring to the deadly flu outbreak during World War I.
Other challenges, he said, will be harder to gauge.
As much as half the county work force could be unavailable, County Manager David Twa anticipates, because they or a family member will be sick “or, frankly, they will be too afraid to come to work.”
At the same time, local health agencies, such as the county, will be legally required to provide for food, shelter and emergency assistance to anyone in quarantine, if they need it, Einweck said. No one knows the extent to which individuals will stockpile staples ahead of an outbreak.
Flu victims will also likely need mechanical assistance to help them breathe, Einweck said, and a 7,000-unit national stockpile of ventilators is likely to be “a drop in the bucket” of need for the devices. The county is unlikely to be able to significantly augment the existing supply.
“Clearly, we are going to lose some people in this process,” Ramsey County Commissioner Janice Rettman observed Tuesday.
But that’s true already, the county’s public health director said after Einweck’s 50-minute presentation to county commissioners. As many as 30,000 Americans a year die from complications related to seasonal influenza, Fulton said, compared with the 600,000 who died in the “Spanish flu” outbreak 88 years ago.
No one knows how widespread a new outbreak might be, he said.
“But it’s hard to raise awareness unless you talk about the worst-case scenario.”