FRANKFORT — While state health officials urged diligence in taking common sense measures to combat H1N1 flu, the potential impact was underscored as the first Kentucky death from the disease was announced at the Governor's Pandemic Influenza Summit on Thursday.
A Fayette County resident died of H1N1, or swine flu, on Monday. The governor's office announced that a woman in her 50s with "significant underlying health conditions" is the state's first confirmed death.
"We were just lucky we have not had a death earlier. This does not mean the virus has changed," said Dr. William Hacker, commissioner of the state department of public health. "I'm concerned about this virus. I am not alarmed about this virus."
So far 1,800 people worldwide have died of the disease. About 600 of those were in the United States.
About 500 Kentuckians die from the seasonal flu each year. Health officials predict that 30 to 40 percent of the population will become ill with H1N1.
"We will get through this,"' said Brig. Gen. John Heltzel, director of Kentucky Emergency Management. "There will be a spring."
"We are in a situation, so far, that the H1N1 virus does not seem to be any more virulent or dangerous than the seasonal flu," said Gov. Steve Beshear. Having people from across the state review education and vaccination plans was important, Beshear said.
Officials with the Kentucky Department of Education announced at the summit that they are instituting a new system by which public school districts around the state can report to Frankfort each day on schools closed because of the flu and numbers of students with flu-like illness. Districts will turn in the information using Infinite Campus, a computerized student-data reporting system.
The state Department of Public Health will use the data for analysis of flu trends and forward the information to federal health officials. The system is to be operational by next Tuesday.
About 1,400 people attended the flu summit Thursday, including educators, health care representatives, child-care officials and business representatives. The daylong conference highlighted the potentially deadly nature of the H1N1 virus and the simple steps people can take to keep the disease from spreading: washing hands frequently, staying home when sick and keeping kids out of school when they are ill.
A tiny bottle of hand sanitizer was given out to each participant.
Last spring, when the first Kentuckians came down with H1N1 the week before the Kentucky Derby, the state tried to track individual cases. As the number of cases grew, health officials turned their efforts to educating the public and minimizing the spread of the disease.
The H1N1 virus will be spreading about the same time as the seasonal flu, which infects people each fall.
The main difference between seasonal and swine flu is that very few people have natural immunity to H1N1, which means it will spread more easily than seasonal flu.
Vaccine for the seasonal flu is available. Hacker encouraged people to get the seasonal flu vaccine as soon as possible.
"Let's go ahead and get it done," he said. That will free up health care professionals to give out the H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available in October.
Health officials are recommending most people get both vaccines. Some people, such as pregnant women and those who care for children under six months old, will be given priority for the H1N1 vaccine when it is available.
Hacker said the H1N1 vaccine is being tested on thousands of volunteers. It will not be released to the public until it is deemed safe.
In order to keep medical offices from being overloaded, officials are urging people with symptoms to call their doctor instead of making an appointment and going in to an office. Medical offices should be prepared to determine over the phone whether antiviral drugs, which can reduce the symptoms of H1N1, should be prescribed. To be effective, the drugs need to be taken within 24 to 48 hours after symptoms appear.
H1N1 so far has been no more virulent than seasonal flu. But health authorities fear that it could mutate into a much more deadly form this fall and winter, like the influenza strain that caused millions of deaths in 1918. Under that worst-case scenario, when the disease mutates and becomes resistant to antiviral medications, health care officials estimate that between 3,000 and 7,000 Kentuckians could die from H1N1.
Speakers stressed repeatedly on Thursday that schools, businesses and government agencies must make contingency plans for a flu pandemic now, when there is still time to prepare, and that simple measures could make a big difference.
But changing ingrained patterns, like washing hands and using hand sanitizer, can be challenging.
As hundreds of attendees lined up to help themselves to an afternoon snack from large platters piled with brownies and cookies, few took notice of the sign saying "free foam sanitizer" that sat above a large, mostly unused dispenser just a few yards away.