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H1N1 Readiness Is a
Shared Responsibility

 

Heather Howard

By Heather Howard
Commissioner, Department
Health and Senior Services

Artist drawing with person holding a large syringe to vaccinate a large orange virus

H1N1 has spread efficiently around the globe since its emergence last spring. 

Although cases have been milder than feared, thousands in New Jersey alone have already been affected. Because influenza is among the least predictable of communicable diseases, health officials in New Jersey and across the nation are preparing in case H1N1 becomes more virulent this fall.

Fortunately, the state Department of Health and Senior Services has been preparing for a pandemic for nearly a decade, including all scenarios. New Jersey’s Statewide Influenza Pandemic Plan is under constant review and we are partnering with outside agencies at all levels of government to ensure that the state is as ready as possible for the potential re-emergence of H1N1 this fall.

Federal Assistance Help from the federal level has arrived in the form of a $16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The money is aimed at helping state and local health agencies and health care facilities with vaccinations, surge capacity and continuity of operations.

In early July, I joined New Jersey Education Commissioner Lucille Davy and state homeland security and emergency management officials in Bethesda, Maryland, for a national H1N1 Influenza Preparedness Summit. Federal leaders there, including U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, charged the states with a mission to convene statewide meetings this summer to prepare for H1N1.

Planning Not surprisingly, New Jersey was ahead of the curve: We had already scheduled a five-part Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Summit during July, August and September. These sessions have offered several hundred health and emergency management officials from the state’s five regional public health planning areas the opportunity to discuss the many facets of a uniform statewide response to H1N1. Key aspects of our response include surveillance, community mitigation strategies, communicating with the public, continuity of operations and health care issues, including hospital surge capacity.

In addition to the pandemic summit, DHSS and the New Jersey Department of Education convened the New Jersey Educators Pandemic Summit in August. More than 600 New Jersey school superintendents attended the conference and discussed vaccination, school closures and continuity of educational services. Speakers included Thomas Frieden, M.D., Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the Department hosted a teleconference with officials from college campuses around the state in concert with the Commission on Higher Education.

Your Role Local coordination is critical to reducing the spread of H1N1 influenza. I urge county and state elected officials and other civic leaders to work with local health departments, school superintendents and emergency management personnel to review all plans for pandemic influenza. Every resource counts. Businesses, faith-based communities and non-profit agencies should also be brought on board. Citizens will seek direction from local officials, who are responsible for such important decisions as school closures, businesses and public gatherings, as well as the continuity of essential services.

H1N1 is different than seasonal flu, but as with any influenza strain, the most effective form of protection is vaccination. Each year, millions of people in the U.S. get seasonal flu shots, significantly decreasing their risk of serious illness. About 36,000 people die in the U.S. each year from complications of seasonal flu. Included in that statistic is the roughly 2,000 New Jerseyans who die each year from pneumonia and influenza. It is my hope that every elected official will encourage their communities to get both a seasonal influenza vaccine as well as the H1N1 vaccine.

Vaccine Safety It is important to note that the federal government will continue to monitor the safety of the swine flu vaccine throughout the upcoming vaccination effort. Further, throughout the flu season, we will strive to communicate the facts in a rapid and accurate fashion so residents have the information they need to protect themselves and their families. As we have seen with other pandemics, this novel H1N1 influenza strain affected different populations than seasonal flu. In a typical flu season, the elderly are the most susceptible to severe complications. In contrast, H1N1 influenza spread quickly among school children.

People with underlying medical conditions and pregnant women were also at risk, as they are with seasonal flu. Pregnant women are especially at risk for H1N1 influenza. According to the CDC, pregnant women accounted for six percent of deaths nationwide, but only one percent of H1N1 cases occurred among pregnant women.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended that certain groups at highest risk be prioritized if the vaccine is initially available in limited shipments.

Those groups are: pregnant women, people who live with or care for infants younger than 6 months of age, health care and emergency medical services personnel, people between the ages of 6 months through 24 years, and people from ages 25 through 64 years who are at higher risk because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.

I recommend that New Jersey residents protect themselves and their loved ones, especially those who are most at risk, by getting vaccinated. The benefits of vaccination far outweigh any perceived risks.

Other Precautions Along with vaccination, there are common sense precautions that everyone should take to prevent the spread of illness: Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently; cover your coughs and sneezes, and stay home if you are sick.

In closing, together we can be sure that everyone has the information and resources necessary to meet the challenges that this novel infection may bring. Our success as a state in preparing for the re-emergence of H1N1 influenza depends heavily on the participation of leaders at all levels of government. Please join me in this effort to enhance our readiness. We need to remain concerned—but not alarmed—recognizing that our response will have to evolve as circumstances change.

 


This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 8, November 2009

 

 

 

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