Brockton area health workers ready to step up if flu pandemic hits

Kyle Alspach

Although cases of swine flu continue to mount in the U.S., including one in Plymouth County, the spread seems to be slowing and is expected to fall short of a full-fledged outbreak.

But health officials warn that even if it fizzles, the virus could return in a second, more severe wave later this year.

But would there be enough local health department workers to handle this, amid a recession that has left the departments shorthanded? What about primary care doctors, already in short supply?

Local health officials acknowledge that a major outbreak would pose some big challenges due to staffing levels.

But in all likelihood, officials say, doctors and health departments would find ways to deal with the crisis — through longer work hours, use of volunteers and postponing work in other areas.

At the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center, for instance, routine doctor visits would be canceled so that the center’s 25 doctors could focus on the flu, said executive director Sue Joss.

Doctors and other staffers might also work round-the-clock, if necessary, Joss said.

“Health-care providers — they’re gong to step up to the plate,” she said. “When there’s a real major crisis, people will step up and do what they need to do.”

It was a similar message from Louis Tartaglia, executive director of the Brockton Board of Health. If a flu pandemic struck, Tartaglia said the department would be needed to field phone calls from concerned residents and release health advisory information to the public.

But the job would require the help of other City Hall employees along with volunteers, Tartaglia said.

That’s because the department is woefully short-staffed for a city of nearly 100,000 people, he said. The department lost one of its two public health nurses and one of its two secretaries in layoffs last week.

That leaves the department with a total of 10 employees, Tartaglia said.

“Local boards of health, even without the consideration of a pandemic, in normal times, have been hit harder than a lot of departments,” he said.

Local health boards may also be in charge of overseeing vaccination centers in the event of a flu pandemic.

Currently, no vaccine is available for the swine flu, and creating one would take months.

But if the outbreak grows in seriousness and a vaccine is produced, communities might set up dispensing sites to vaccinate their populations.

To do this in a rapid manner would require hundreds of volunteers in each town, thousands in each city.

Many communities are actively seeking volunteers to join their Medical Reserve Corps, people who would be called upon to assist at the dispensing sites in the event of a major outbreak.

In Brockton, Tartaglia said he hopes to get 2,200 volunteers signed up. Currently, only 200 have done this. Tartaglia urged interested people to e-mail him at ltartaglia@ci.brockton.ma.us or call the health department at 508-580-7175.

In Middleboro, the town’s Medical Reserve Corps consists of three physicians, 18 nurses, two veterinarians, three mental health professionals, six emergency medical service professionals, a respiratory therapist and 60 others.

But Health Officer Jeanne C. Spalding said she is always looking for more volunteers. Those that would like to volunteer should call 508-946-2408.

The World Health Organization has said the swine flu does not qualify as a pandemic, or worldwide outbreak. Many observers note that — at least in the U.S. — the virus has been benign in almost all cases.

But epidemiologists say swine flu shouldn’t be taken lightly as a pandemic threat.

In pandemics of the past century — including the 1918 “Spanish” flu — a flu outbreak occurred in spring and then faded, as summer’s heat and humidity worked against the virus.

But a second wave of flu broke out months later, coinciding with the normal flu season in the fall and winter. And this time, the flu was much more deadly.

At Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton, the head of the emergency department, Rick Herman, cautioned that the current swine flu is no worse than normal flu, and falls far short of pandemic proportions.

Herman added that he believes health care providers would have time to prepare for a pandemic before it happened.

“It’s not likely that today there’s going to be two cases, and tomorrow there’s going to be 2,000 cases. It unfolds slowly,” he said. “As the situation unfolds, then you deal with the resource issue as it’s happening.”

Enterprise writer Kyle Alspach can be reached at kalspach@enterprisenews.com. Correspondent Alice Elwell contributed to this report.