County, state officials prepared if outbreak spreads to Arizona
Swine flu has hit 19 of Mexico’s 32 states, but one southern Arizona health official said the deadly virus strain has yet to reach Sonora.
“The official communication we have with Sonora is that they don’t have any (cases),” said Myrna Seiter, a border surveillance epidemiologist with the Tucson-based Arizona Office of Border Health.
Arizona has no documented cases of swine flu during this outbreak, according to state and local officials. But that could change.
“We expect cases to show up here, because we’re looking for it,” Pima County Health Department spokeswoman Patti Woodcock said Monday. “It would not be a surprise.”
County health officials have begun a program of “enhanced surveillance,” Woodcock said. That means officials have sent word to area hospitals and clinics to watch for patients exhibiting flulike symptoms who have traveled from areas where cases of swine flu have occurred.
If a suspected case turns up locally, then the Health Department would begin “active surveillance,” Woodcock said. That would initiate a full-scale investigation, during which officials would pore over patient charts and other medical records to determine if there is an outbreak here.
The Arizona Department of Health Services is prepared, should there be cases in this state, said Will Humble, the department’s acting director.
“We’ve got our ducks in a row already,” Humble said. “We’re pretty confident that we have the resources, people and infrastructure in place to do the right thing, to either stop this thing or slow it down as much as we can.”
Much of the emphasis right now is on enhanced surveillance, he said, with the goal of identifying cases quickly, and then, if needed, isolating the ill so they can’t spread the disease.
The state is also beefing up its stockpile of antivirals in case they are needed.
The swine flu virus appears to respond to Tamiflu and Relenza – both lessen the severity of symptoms – if the medications are administered shortly after the onset of symptoms.
The state has 56,000 doses of Tamiflu, Humble said, and plans to get more from the federal government’s stockpile.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection planned to distribute leaflets and warnings about the outbreak at all U.S. ports of entry, including Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Leaflets are also being distributed along the Mexican border, the agency said.
Teresa Small, supervisory public affairs officer for Customs and Border protection, said inspectors have not detained any travelers at the Arizona border thus far, but they are authorized to hold anyone entering the country who appears to have the virus.
She said inspectors follow a list of protocols when they encounter a person who may be sick, including the use of protective masks and gloves.
Inspectors then contact the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and advise them of the symptoms and circumstances. In some cases, travelers may be released based on the phone conversation. The CDC could also send a health official to the border to determine whether the traveler may be a carrier of the virus.
She said travelers who are sick may be held against their will until the matter is resolved.
“They don’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s something we have to be able to do to enforce the law. . . If we have to go to the quarantine level, we’ll work with them (CDC) to make that happen.”
Frank Sayne, a Tucson-area contractor who also works on properties in San Carlos, Sonora, said he travels to Mexico 40 to 50 times per year for work.
The flu outbreak is “concentrated in Mexico City, but I’m not going to let that dictate whether I go down there,” Sayne said.
He plans to travel to Mexico on May 5. He usually goes down with friends and business associates, but he said a few have had reservations about going.
Sabri Germain-Gomuc, a University of Arizona junior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, said his parents, who live in Phoenix, went to Mexico this weekend despite the recent outbreaks.
“They go there like once a month, but just (to) Rocky Point,” Germain-Gomuc said. “They were careful and did not eat at sketchy restaurants.”
Julian Etienne, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, said that he has not heard of people canceling trips to Mexico.
Etienne said there was more of a concern over drug-related violence than there has been over the swine flu.
According to the World Health Organization, there have been 152 deaths, all in Mexico, with 20 confirmed as swine flue. 1,995 suspected cases of swine flu in Mexico. Fifty 50 cases in U.S. have been confirmed
Elsewhere, six confirmed in Canada; two confirmed in Scotland and seven suspected; 11 confirmed and 43 suspected in New Zealand; two confirmed and 25 suspected in Spain; one suspected in France; one confirmed in Israel, one suspected in South Korea.
Matt Lewis, the Citizen’s NASA intern, and The Arizona Republic contributed to this article.
FLU PREVENTION TIPS
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze; throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Or cough or sneeze into your sleeve or upper arm. This will help to keep germs off your hands, where they can be spread easier.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners also are effective.
• Try to avoid close contact (within 6 feet) with sick people.
• If you get sick, public health experts recommend that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.