PREPARING FOR H1N1: Keeping the sick from the healthyAcknowledging that they can’t insulate or barricade a city against the H1N1 “swine flu” virus, public health officials have put much of their efforts into containing an outbreak and minimizing its effects. Key to that strategy: avoiding contact between the sick and the not sick, especially in large group settings where the infection rate could soar.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
Acknowledging that they can’t insulate or barricade a city against the H1N1 “swine flu” virus, public health officials have put much of their efforts into containing an outbreak and minimizing its effects.
Key to that strategy: avoiding contact between the sick and the not sick, especially in large group settings where the infection rate could soar.
Think schools, where administrators have ramped up monitoring and sanitizing and other preventive actions. Think banks and grocery stores and other business places built on employee-customer contact.
Think church or other religious gathering places. Some area ministers already have advised parishioners that it’s OK to “share God’s peace” with a smile and a wave, forgoing the traditional handshakes with neighbors in the pews.
And speaking of sacred gathering places: Think Ralph Engelstad Arena and Sioux hockey.
The Ralph averages 440,000 event guests a year, including more than 20 sold-out UND hockey games drawing nearly 12,000 people each.
Chris Semrau, director of events and media relations, said REA managers are trying to walk a line between being prepared and not overreacting to the H1N1 challenge.
“We are very conscious of the number of event guests we host each year, and it is a priority to keep them safe at our events,” he said.
Semrau, in his 10th year at the arena, said there may have been precautions taken at the time of the “bird flu” scare of 2006, “but I don’t think there was nearly the amount of discussion or planning when that was taking place as now.”
As the virus spreads, the potential impact on university athletics has coaches fretting over depth charts and beefy football linemen stocking their dorm rooms with hand sanitizer, which if they don’t shop carefully may smell of lilac or lavender.
Teammates tend to spend a lot of time together, and the tough-guy standard pushes many to practice and play through illness, potentially spreading the disease.
REA managers have developed a 17-point plan to respond to the H1N1 threat. Some highlights:
- Staff members will repeatedly wipe handrails, concession counters, door handles and other surfaces during events, Semrau said.
- Hand sanitizers will be at each desk and work space, in break areas and employee check-in stations, and in public areas. In addition, the approximately 300 employees who work events will receive and carry individual bottles of sanitizer.
- Employees are being encouraged to take commonly recognized steps to stay healthy and to stay home if sick.
- Ticket holders who become sick are urged to stay home but make use of Ticketmaster’s ticket forwarding by e-mail to get their tickets to other fans or an exchange program to make tickets available to charitable organizations.
Semrau said the REA has cleaned and maintained the ventilation system and spent more than $10,000 on new air filters for the coming season, but that is an annual activity and not a direct response to H1N1.
If the new flu virus becomes more serious and widespread, Semrau said the REA will work with UND and Grand Forks Public Health officials to determine whether any event should be postponed or canceled.
“We’re doing some internal stuff, too, working with UND Athletics to keep the weight room as clean as possible to keep our student athletes on the ice and on the court,” he said.
Also, REA managers are talking with people at arenas around the country “to see what they’re facing and how they’re responding,” Semrau said, and they will participate in an Oct. 6 “webinar” involving dozens of arenas around the country and actions they’re taking to minimize H1N1’s impact.
“It’s kind of a wait-and-see situation,” he said. “But as of now, we hope to have very little disruption.”
Avoiding large crowds is just one part of what has been called “social distancing,” a preventive measure sure to be embraced — from about 6 feet away — by people who dislike “close talkers” and other violators of personal space.
At school, students’ desks can be spaced a little farther apart. At work, employees could arrange for a little more distance between work stations. Theater-goers might be more inclined to move away from someone who is coughing or sneezing — or a manager may be more inclined to ask someone displaying flu symptoms to leave.
The term “social distancing” has been attributed to Dr. Richard Dawood, medical director at a London clinic, who told CNN earlier this year that “people don’t want to get too close,” especially if there’s a chance the other person might be infected with the H1N1 virus.
“There is going to be a move towards less handshaking, less greeting people with a kiss,” he said. “There may well end up being fewer meetings.”
The World Health Organization advises against close contact with people who appear unwell and those who are coughing and feverish.
What about travel? Airlines, railways and bus companies are being encouraged to take preventive actions, including sanitizing customer service and baggage handling areas and stocking up on hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. Travelers themselves can take steps to safeguard their health, including bringing their own sanitizer and bottled drinking water.
If you can’t avoid crowds, company or contact with others, the flu fighter’s mantra remains the same: Don’t spare the soap and water.
It’s a standard easier to adopt for some than for others.
“I was a fussy little girl and now I’m a fussy little adult,” said Connie Cox, a park naturalist at Itasca State Park, who anticipates receiving the usual stream of school children making field trips to the park this fall. “I’m like a raccoon, always washing my hands.”
Shaking hands with friends, business associates and even strangers is “a hard habit to break,” as Jody Thompson, assistant superintendent of Grand Forks Schools, noted earlier in this series.
And Beth Hemming, a Grand Forks parent also featured in this series, reported that H1N1 — at least, the concern about it — has come to her place of worship, Calvary Lutheran Church.
“When it came time to pass the peace on (a recent) Sunday, the pastor said that, given H1N1, it was OK not to shake hands,” she said. “But we should look at our neighbors, smile and still share God’s peace with one another.”
Hemming smiled and added, “Everyone around me shook my hand anyway.”
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