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Plans for Pandemic Inspire Idealism

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

August 18 -- How do you feed and care for an entire city when shelters and large gatherings could be dangerous and you don’t want to spread panic and disease?

That was the challenge faced by a team of Santa Monica service agencies, hospitals, churches and businesses who are getting ready in case a flu pandemic strikes the beachside community.

It’s a progressive’s dream, an all-encompassing safety net free to needy and self-sufficient alike that reaches the entire community, including the homeless, non-English speakers, and the elderly housebound.

“We’ve all got a stake in keeping as many people alive and healthy in Santa Monica as possible,” local Red Cross Executive Director John Pacheco told members of Santa Monica Organizations Active in Disaster (SMOAD) Thursday.

“One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina is that a group of organizations can get much more done when they work together to compliment each other’s efforts during a disaster,” Pacheco said of SMOAD.

Planning for the worst seemed to bring out the best in the group of officials from the Red Cross, Saint John’s Hospital, Saint Joseph’s Center, the Salvation Army, the Westside Food Bank and the Cities of Santa Monica and Malibu.

With 30 to 40 percent of the workforce out sick, caring for sick family members or just afraid to leave their homes, and a rising death toll, volunteers and city and hospital workers would have to pool their resources, Pacheco said.

Getting food into people’s homes would be essential, since bulk distribution centers would be problematic -- any place large number of people congregate could be sites for infection.

Prophylactic education would have to be distributed in languages people could read, and every household would have to be provided with masks, hand gel, and gloves.

Dehydration could be a real risk, especially for people running high fevers, and distribution of pedialyte, Gatorade, and, possibly, water decontamination tablets might become necessary.

A “distress” card that people too ill to continue to care for themselves or their families would be given to every home, so that mail carriers could see it and alert the authorities.

But there are even more intractable problems inherent in such a widespread disaster.

Homeless people are generally advised to go to shelters for treatment. But shelters would be a site for “infection and reinfection,” pointed out Judy Alexander, Associate Director of the Saint Joseph Center.

The homeless, Alexander said, “have nowhere to go and retreat to.”

“How do you quarantine homeless people, how do you do homecare for homeless people,” agreed Pacheco.

Mail carriers might not want to deliver supplies and food to every home, Red Cross Board member Eric Faber pointed out.

But Faber had a solution.

“Verizon has the internal ability to distribute to every house,” he said, adding that the company has a fleet of computerized trucks that they use to deliver phone books.

And Meals on Wheels is already set up to distribute food to individual homes, Pacheco pointed out, although, like all the groups helping out, they would be affected by a severe manpower shortage.

On the plus side, the Salvation Army has “a small army” of men in its rehab facility who could help, said Major Dave Harman. In addition, the Red Cross has 560 volunteers “ready for deployment,” according to Pacheco, who also suggested that the city could call on its “nonessential worker” pool.

Getting information out in a community with fragmented media resources might be a problem. Pacheco said collaboration between the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu, local media and City TV needs to be worked out.

Food supplies, both institutional and on a household level, may be threatened.

“The (Westside) Food Bank could be one of the first places affected,” Executive Director Bruce Rankin said. “On our shelves, we’ve got enough to feed a fraction of the city for one day.”

Rankin described three problems with food distribution.

In a pandemic, “no one in the household can or will want to go out and get food,” he said. Also, the markets may not stay open. “The line of supply may be broken between food grown to food sold,” he said.

In a worst-case scenario, there may be an economic collapse, leaving people with no money to buy food.

Keeping sick people quarantined at home, when they need to go to work to make money to buy food, was a quandary that preoccupied Thursday’s planners.

Maybe employers could waive sick time restrictions, ensuring a paycheck for sick employees, proposed Brad Davis, Emergency Services Coordinator for the City of Malibu.

In any event, cooperation will be vital at a time when people will be inclined to pull back and batten down the hatches, Davis said.

“We can’t afford to say ‘this is just Malibu,’” he said. “Sick people (will be) moving back and forth across the border.”

When the possibility of using the Pepperdine Campus for emergency facilities was brought up, Davis warned that the college would not necessary be willing to harbor large groups of sick people, especially since it would have its own population of students to protect.

Davis could imagine the president of the college “closing the drawbridge and keeping them out of my little fiefdom.”

But “extreme times are going to demand extreme measures,” Davis added.

“Katrina is a good example of that. If it’s big enough, there’s enough public consciousness behind it,” he said.

The needs of children whose parents can’t care for them and of pets came up near the end of the meeting, indicating some of the work that lies ahead for SMOAD.

This fall, the local agencies will focus on flu prevention and immunization. For additional information, call the American Red Cross of Santa Monica at (310) 394-3773 or go online at www.redcrossofsantamonica.org

For information about a possible flu pandemic, including how to protect your self and your family, go to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health website at www.lapublichealth.org/acd/flu.htm

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