City to monitor severity of flu during season

Three types of alerts could be issued

November 09, 2007|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

City health officials said yesterday that they will monitor the severity of the flu this season by checking with hospitals and physicians.

Depending on what they find, they might issue three types of flu alerts.

Their plan, drawn up with help from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, focuses on communication with emergency rooms, doctors' offices and medical labs, where cases can be confirmed. Officials said they would keep the public informed with news conferences and surveillance reports posted twice a month on the Health Department's Web site (www.balti morehealth.org).

"The idea is to do as much communicating as possible," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city health commissioner.

Flu season begins in October and usually runs through March. January and February are usually the top months for flu outbreaks, but the peak period can vary, Sharfstein said.

Seasonal flu virus kills an average of 36,000 people a year nationwide and causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations, experts say.

Few cases have been reported, but there is no way to predict whether this season will be mild or severe, Sharfstein said.

The Health Department plan mimics approaches established by world and national health experts for combating pandemics, but it is tailored to Baltimore's needs, experts said.

"This is absolutely a unique plan" for a local health department, said Jonathan Links, a professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness, who helped come up with the scheme.

"What's important is that it gets the public accustomed to the notion of different stages or levels of flu risk."

As part of the plan, the Health Department will monitor 911 calls each day, making note of callers who report breathing problems, or specifically mention fever or flulike symptoms. The department also will track the number of patients who complain of fever or flulike symptoms each day in city hospital emergency rooms.

Meanwhile, weekly reports on flulike symptoms will be gathered from 13 private physicians in the Baltimore area.

Cases of flu confirmed by hospital laboratories and in nursing homes will be reported once a week under the plan.

Depending on the number of cases and how rapidly flu is spreading in Baltimore, city health officials might issue any of three levels of flu alert -- minimum flu status, a level-two flu alert or a severe flu warning.

If a severe flu warning is issued, the Health Department might release daily surveillance reports that list the number of cases of patients with flulike symptoms, as well as the numbers of documented cases.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

Need a flu shot? The American Lung Association has a list of clinics at www.flucliniclocator.org.

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