Summit to take aim at the flu

Invitation-only gathering in Columbia to aid public readiness

May 14, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

In an effort to make sure emergency plans are in place well ahead of any flu pandemic, Howard County officials and the Horizon Foundation will hold an invitation-only summit Tuesday in Columbia to begin educating the county's leaders to respond to a widespread medical disaster.

The summit, called by county government and a group of 60 key people called the Community Emergency Response Network, will include nationally known health experts and local social service agencies, school officials and grass-roots community leaders.

The goal: to make sure that local officials -- and the public -- understand what a flu pandemic is, how it spreads and how it could affect communities.

"Our message is to make sure that people are educated from the right sources of information and are thinking about their personal preparations for any type of emergency," said Dr. Penny Borenstein, the county health officer, chairwoman of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers and a member of CERN.

Though avian flu is the current concern -- about 200 human cases of bird flu have been confirmed in labs worldwide -- Borenstein stresses that public health and social service officials need to be prepared for other, yet-unidentified flu strains that may emerge.

"An influenza pandemic is likely to occur at some point in our lifetime. The scale, scope and severity of it cannot be predicted," said Borenstein, who expects about 300 to attend the summit at a Columbia hotel.

Those invited include a range of leaders from health, education and business backgrounds, as well as nonprofit groups that serve the foreign-born, homeless and others.

Medical experts include Glenn Morris, chairman of the department of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland; Michael Greenberger, director of the Center of Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland's College of Law, and Michael Klag, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In organizing the event, Howard officials and the Horizon Foundation drew on the resources of CERN, which was created to deal with a range of natural and man-made disasters,

The group is chaired by Richard M. Krieg, president and chief executive officer of the Horizon Foundation, a health-centered organization created when Johns Hopkins merged with Howard County General Hospital.

"It's really the one place where the first responders, the emergency managers and the rest of the community sit across the table from each other and talk about emergency planning," Krieg said.

He said the group is focusing on ways people can protect themselves at home, how they can get food and help and how to keep the local economy going if a pandemic begins. If that does happen, he said, "local communities would largely be on their own."

Borenstein also sees an important role for public officials in making sure citizens have accurate information, at a time when people may be panicked or lulled by messages they absorb through the media, such as the recent ABC made-for-television thriller Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America.

Roy Appletree, director of FIRN, a private Columbia-based nonprofit that is an advocate for the foreign-born, has encouraged leaders of ethnic communities to attend, and they say they will.

"The nice thing about CERN is that a lot of us are learning to know one another, to work together; and so when there's an emergency, Howard County is going to be a better place," Appletree said.

Andrea Ingram, director of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, said she also belongs to CERN and has participated in the group's Neighbor to Neighbor program.

"When the emergency happens is not the time to meet your neighbors," she said.

To prepare her North Laurel neighborhood, she invited people from the 60 homes closest to hers to meet, and she had a second meeting, urging the 13 families who responded to each bring a new recruit the second time. Now the neighborhood has an e-mail list ready, and people with special skills or vulnerabilities have been identified.

In addition, three Saturdays of citizen training are scheduled this month at Howard County's Gateway office building, she said, to hone preparedness skills.

"I think it's really the way to go," she said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

Maryland's statewide influenza response plan is available online at www.flu.maryland.gov.

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