Local News

N.C. stock of flu meds below guidelines

Posted May 1, 2009 10:35 a.m. EDT
Updated May 1, 2009 7:24 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina is one of 29 states that has not stockpiled enough flu treatments to meet the federal government's recommendations, but the state's health director says there's no reason for concern.

State officials have stockpiled about 660,000 courses – enough doses to treat one person – of antiviral medicines. North Carolina's federal allotment is about 1 million, and roughly one-quarter of that was distributed this week in preparation to combat the swine flu outbreak.

Combined, those 1.7 million total courses are enough to treat about 18 percent of the state's population. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that each state have enough antiviral medicine on hand to treat 25 percent of its population.

Dr. Jeffrey Engel, the state health director, said Thursday the state purchased the maximum amount of federally-subsidized antivirals in 2007. He said the state did not purchase any doses at market price, and he saw no reason to rush out and fill the gap.

"I think the commercial supply will keep up at the present time," Engel said.

Federal officials have said there is no shortage of the medicine in regular pharmacies, but the government is buying another 13 million treatments of anti-flu drugs to replace the millions shipped out to states.

An Associated Press survey of all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that 29 were below the 25 percent threshold. In 2006, as part of its own pandemic flu preparations, the federal government created a stockpile of 44 million courses, which would cover about 15 percent of the U.S. population.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed more than 140 cases of the H1N1 virus in at least 19 states as of Friday. Nine of those people have been hospitalized. A 23-month-old boy in Houston is the only person in the U.S. to die from the disease.

North Carolina public health officials have confirmed two "probable" cases of the virus, which is also known as swine flu. Probable cases are samples that show a type of influenza that isn't a seasonal strain, Engel said.

One of the samples came from an Onslow County resident who was recently in Texas, while the second was a man traveling through Wake County on business, Engel said. The business traveler returned to his home in Canada two days ago, and the Onslow resident is being isolated until tests can determine whether he has the virus.

States have been relying on the CDC to confirm the presence of the virus, and Engel expects to get the results back on the two cases this weekend.

North Carolina also expects to receive testing kits from the CDC this weekend, allowing the state lab to complete tests more quickly.

Pandemic concerns ease

North Carolina's lab has ramped up capacity to levels usually seen during the peak of the annual flu season so that samples could be tested as quickly as possible, officials said.

"Our lab's working around the clock to keep up," Engel said, noting 207 of the 334 samples being tested arrived at the lab on Thursday and Friday. He said he expects more to pour in over the next several days.

Of the other samples submitted to the state lab, 202 had tested negative for the virus through Friday and the rest were still being tested, he said.

"North Carolina at this point in time is just lucky," he said. "We think it's just a matter of when, not if (an H1N1 case is confirmed in the state)."

Although the World Health Organization has placed its alert level at its next-to-highest notch, signaling a global pandemic could be imminent, U.S. officials said Friday that it's not clear that the outbreak will turn out to be any worse than ordinary flu.

"It may turn out that H1N1 runs its course like ordinary flus, in which case we will have prepared and we won't need all these preparations," President Barack Obama said, adding that the nation is "taking it seriously."

In New York City, which has seen the largest U.S. outbreak, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the illness "a relatively minor annoyance."

The CDC has confirmed cases in Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Officials Maine and Georgia have confirmed cases that haven't been included in the CDC count.

Children between ages 5 and 17 account for about 40 percent of the cases, and people ages 18 to 49 account for another 40 percent. About 30 percent of the people with the virus have traveled to Mexico.

About 430 schools nationwide have closed over H1N1 fears, and government officials have said more might have to close for several days to limit the spread of the disease. Texas has canceled high school athletic events until May 11.

Globally, more than 250 cases have been confirmed in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Britain, Germany, Spain, Israel, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands and China.

The H1N1 strain is suspected in more than 165 deaths in Mexico – only a dozen have been confirmed – and about 2,500 others there may be suffering symptoms.

Mexican officials said, however, that the number of new deaths from the disease appears to be leveling off. The country has ordered non-essential businesses to shut down until next Tuesday to limit the spread of the virus even further.

Five students and a professor from Mount Olive College have continued their trip through Mexico without any problems. All six are taking anti-viral medicines, but they wrote in a blog that no confirmed H1N1 cases are near their location. Still, they wrote, some of their activities have been curtailed by the government's mandated shutdown of non-essential activities.

Businesses implement flu precautions

 

U.S. health officials also are urging anyone with flu-like symptoms to stay home from work and avoid large gatherings. They have asked businesses to be understanding of employees' situations, especially if a parent has to stay home to care for a child.

Area businesses have implemented plans to limit employee exposure to the virus.

Progress Energy Inc., for example, has told any employee who has traveled to Mexico to stay home for seven days upon return before going into the office.

"We don't have employees who travel on business to Mexico, but we have 10,500 or so employees – some who may travel to Mexico on vacation – and if they recently returned, we have some rules about when they can return to work," said Mike Hughes, a spokesman for the Raleigh-based utility.

"(The policy) helps us to ensure the system that customers rely on will continue to be reliable even if there is a pandemic that affects the United States," Hughes said.

Cisco Systems Inc. workers in Mexico will work from their homes for the next several days as part of a national effort to limit non-essential activity and contain the spread of the disease, spokeswoman Kirsten Weeks said. The computer technology company also has restricted travel to and from Mexico, she said.

Quintiles Transnational Corp. has suspended employee travel to Mexico, but it hasn't yet implemented a forced isolation order on employees who vacation in that country, said Dr. Oren Cohen, chief medical officer for the Durham-based pharmaceuticals services company.

Continental Airlines cut some of its 500 weekly flights to Mexico after bookings on the flights began dropping in recent days, officials said.

The Johnston County Courthouse has even taken precautions, ordering three drug suspects from Mexico to wear masks during a Friday court hearing. Investigators said the men crossed the border with cocaine five days ago, and the men are being isolated in the jail for observation.

Engel said residents should take the precautions they would during the annual flu season, such as staying home if they don't feel well, covering up when coughing or sneezing, washing their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 15 seconds and seeing a doctor if they develop serious flu symptoms.

State and local public health officials are prepared for an outbreak, having drawn up a detailed plan five years ago to combat a pandemic virus and having conducted periodic drills since then, he said.

"We have a plan, we've activated that plan, and we're marching to it," he said.