Archive for April 27th, 2009

The New Swine Flu Review

Sharon April 27th, 2009

I was all psyched to tell you what I learned about water pumping in the North Country, but when I got back, my in box was filled with swine flu news and requests for what to do.  So I thought it was a good time to post a short review of what to do if swine flu does become a pandemic - you’ll find that a surprising amount of it is precisely the stuff we all have been doing anyway.

As I understand it, swine flu is nothing to get complacent about, but generally less virulent than avian varieties, because we’re better adapted to it.  So far, all the US cases have been very mild - the outbreak in Queens involved everyone being sent home.

My own personal response is to watch and wait.  Both Eli and Eric are going to school today.  I’m still planning on travelling by public transportation to Maine next weekend for a talk, although this could change if events do.  A few years ago I wrote a piece about the potential intersections of pandemic flu planning (and actual outbreaks) with peak oil and other potential crises.  I think most of what I wrote is potentially true, particularly the fact that a not-terribly severe flu epidemic could be used easily for political purposes - we tend only to be able to deal with one crisis at a time, and so one concern is simply that while the news is focusing on flu, they won’t be reporting on what is happening in the economy.  This may not happen - it is merely speculation, but while we should be concerned about a major flu outbreak, we should also continue to look at the world critically, rather than simply getting scared.

So the first thing to say is DONT PANIC - so far, the swine flu, while potentially very widespread, doesn’t necessarily seem to be that serious.  Yes, 160-odd people in Mexico have died.  But lots of people die here of the flu every year - it is actually a very common cause of death among the elderly. So there’s no reason immediately to assume that this is a particularly virulent or unusually serious version. 

The second thing you should do is WASH YOUR HANDS and stay a step back from people.  You obviously should be particularly careful about this if you have elderly or medically fragile people in your home, or are elderly or medically fragile.  Wash your hands *a lot* and wash your kids hands.  If you have appropriate N-95 masks, you can wear them if you have to be out, if that makes you feel better.  They are tough to keep on children and they aren’t a perfect solution, so I tend to think of them as of largely psychological value for many people, but it can’t hurt.

Ok, what’s next on the agenda.  Well, the first thing is to avoid getting swine flu if possible.   That is, you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time hanging out in large public venues, if you are concerned about it (of course, our family just spent the weekend at synagogue, the greenmarket, the public library, but what can you do).  The best possible strategy for controlling the spread of illness is for people to mostly stay home.  Mexico City has already closed its schools, universities and public venues, and I won’t be surprised to see this happening over other regions as well.   

You don’t have to wait until they close your school - you can take your kids out earlier if you are concerned.  Jobs are tougher (trust me, my husband teaches at a large state University) - you may or may not have the option of staying home.  At this point, I wouldn’t lose a job based on what we know.  You are going to have to balance this one.  But the best possible strategy is to stay at home as much as possible - at least give up Bingo night.  Don’t fly if you can avoid it, and I’d wear a mask if I did - airplanes are particularly likely venues of transmission.

If you think you might have Swine flu, you should probably be checked - call your county or state public health office to find out where.  Otherwise, this would be a good time to stay away from hospitals and doctors offices, where people with viruses that might or might not be swine flu may be found.  So you might want to cancel routine checkups, minor surgeries and anything else that can wait - note the emphasis on *can wait* - don’t skip essential medical care. 

 This is also a good time to update your prescriptions - pharmacies are also a place where sick people congregate.  If you can, get your doctor to call in an extra refill, telling them you are concerned that if there is a quarantine, you may run out.  Also a good time to pick up elderberry syrup, rehydration liquids, tylenol, etc…  Don’t forget whatever you might need for children, the elderly, etc…

If you are going to be in Quarantine, you will need a supply of food.  How much?  Well, if you wish to give your paranoia free reign, probably at least 2-3 months.  Why?  Because the CDC has suggested that in a real pandemic situation flu would come in waves - and that extended quarantines might have to last as long as 2 months - and that there might be more than one of them.

Now I’m sure a lot of you have plenty of food, and the odds are very good that this time you won’t need it.  But I’m not sure I would want to bet real cash on that - I’m risk averse.  If this turns into a major issue the *stated policy of our government* (and Australia and Britain’s as well, and New Zealand has already begun to implement quarantines) is quarantine, and it could last at least 8 weeks. I wrote about this in my essay about why FEMA’s 2 weeks of stored food is not enough here.  You might want to do as little shopping in public venues as possible for even longer than that.

What if you don’t have 8 weeks worth of food supplies?  Well, you’d best go shopping.  This is one of the reasons that I wrote this essay on crisis shopping a while back.  I knew that some of you would wait until the last minute ;-) .  Note, while there is no reason whatsoever to run around screaming “the sky is falling, buy spam!” it would be nice if you were to ask an elderly neighbor or a busy young Mom if you can pick up any supplies for them.  And if this motivates you to get to work on food storage, so much the better - as I always mention, this is *not* the ideal way to go about food storage.

In addition, you want to pick up items that will allow you to treat minor injuries and mild cases of illness at home - think about what your family needs when you are sick.  Ideally, you already have a first aid kit, a store of meds, and these things.  Don’t forget to make some chicken soup or miso soup and freeze or can it.

On the home front, it is worth remembering that you may be stuck at home for a while - jobs may be closed down, schools shuttered, and people’s travel restricted.  What are you all going to do together?  Well, assuming no one is sick, now’s a great time to work on the garden and your food producing infrastructure.  Make sure you’ve got seeds and the things you need to grow food, feed for animals and pets, and a plan.  If your kids are used to being at school all day and in front of the computer or tv all afternoon, and you don’t usually all stay home together, you will rapidly find that you get on each other’s nerves.  Now is a good time to think “what will we all do” when we are actually forced to find out how much we like being together.

So now’s a good time to pick up that raised bed building materials, or the new tile for the bathroom.  Now is a good time to think about something you’ve been wanting to do or learn together.  Make sure the kids bring their books home from school at night if you think the schools might be closed.  Plan a family project.  Plan a visit to a local state park or other place not likely to be filled with other people.  Make the change as enjoyable as you can - think of this as a home-based vacation.  And if you don’t know how to have a good time for a few weeks at home, this is your next project - getting to like staying home with your family.

Finally, talk to your neighbors if it seems like this will turn into something significant.  First of all, if by some chance you have to stay home for a month or two, you will be desperate for a little local company, so you might as well hang out now.  Second of all, they may need your help - or you theirs.

Also, you might talk to family - some family may leave population centers to come to a safer location, or you may not want your elderly father to endure quarantine alone. If you are going to consolidate for the emergency, plan ahead - you want to do it early, and ideally, without passing infection back and forth.  If you may need to leave your location, get organized now, and figure out your plan. 

Again, this is not meant to be a “Zombies, run” kind of post - it is simply a reminder that the same basic mechanisms that serve us when preparing for one potential crisis serve us in almost all of them.  That is, sooner or later most of us will have something happen to them - whether a natural disaster, a political crisis, an extended job loss, a pandemic, an extended illness, etc… and the very basic things - take care of yourself, connect with your community, help others, have a plan - will help you no matter what.