Local News

Some cases of swine flu suspected in N.C.

Posted April 27, 2009 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated April 28, 2009 10:38 a.m. EDT

— The state's health director said Monday afternoon that there are suspected cases of swine flu in North Carolina, but declined to say how many cases or where they were located.

Dr. Jeffrey Engel said Monday evening that officials are involuntarily isolating patients who may have the virus. He declined to specifically say how many suspected cases were in the state, noting that the number is always changing, and he declined to say where they were located.

"We're working very closely with providers, and they are investigating cases on a daily basis," Engel said. "It's a very fluid situation and there will be suspect cases. People travel all the time."

Investigators were gathering specimens and hope to know whether the cases are "probable" some time Tuesday and will seek confirmations by Wednesday.

Federal health officials have confirmed 40 cases in the United States – in New York, Ohio, Kansas, Texas and California. Of those, only one person has been hospitalized and all have recovered. That's in contrast to Mexico, where the suspected death toll was at 149, with more than 1,600 cases reported.

Track swine flu cases across the globe.

Engel said the suspected cases are related to travel, mostly to Mexico. He said nobody has been hospitalized and that the suspected cases have been ordered to in-home isolation.

Along with the travel history, Engel said the suspected cases involve patients with severe flu symptoms. The state is encouraging providers to only report more severe cases – people with higher fevers or more prominent respiratory problems.

Engel said he expects the number of suspected cases to increase. "This is dynamic," he said.

At a news briefing Monday morning, Engel said the state is "better prepared" than ever to handle any potential outbreak of the virus in North Carolina. The state has a stockpile of 660,000 doses of treatment for the flu, if necessary.

He urged residents to take precautions by staying at home if they present with flu-like symptoms, wash their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 15 seconds, and see a doctor if flu symptoms become serious.

"To ward off any potential, just be prudent as you would during normal flu season," he said.

But, Engel said, there's one thing people don't have to stop doing in order to avoid the swine flu: eating pork.

"You can't catch the flu through eating any food item," he said.

That announcement was welcome news for those who profit from pork such as restaurants and grocery stores. "That would affect our business" if people were afraid to eat pork, said Worth Westbrook, co-owner of McCall's Bar-B-Que & Seafood in Clayton.

"I am not too concerned, because I love barbecue," said McCall's customer Glenn Hines, who filled up his plate at the buffet while updates on the swine flu played on television screens.

Gov. Bev Perdue, in a statement Monday morning, also advised people to be careful and take proper preventative measures and that she is confident in the state's readiness to handle a potential pandemic.

"North Carolina is equipped with a full supply of antiviral medications and personal protective supplies such as face masks," Perdue said. "We have public health teams ready to deploy to any community in our state that needs assistance."

Local hospitals, meanwhile reviewed emergency plans, many of which were put in place after the SARS epidemic in 2003 that infected more than 8.000 people and caused 74 deaths worldwide.

"We all have plans on how to deal with that," Dr. David Weber, an infectious diseases expert at UNC Hospitals. "The hospital has detailed 20-page plan."

Weber said it includes how to protect staff treating patients. He also said the hospital has enough protective gear to last up to six months.

"We have ability for rapid communications and to expand the number of both beds within the hospital and clinic availability, if wee need, too,' he added.

On the higher-education level, UNC System President Erskine Bowles asked universities to review their emergency plans and distribute basic information on flu prevention.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students preparing for final exams said they were concerned about the swine flu because of the number of people in the college environment who travel.

"I guess there are a lot of people coming in and out, so it could be more likely to happen here," sophomore Jill Zartman said.