As health officials waited to discover when the swine flu epidemic might make its first appearance in Florida, efforts to plan for a possible outbreak moved into high gear Thursday.
School officials are figuring out what would happen if they had to close schools where children are diagnosed with the flu. Hospitals are reviewing procedures for preventing the spread of a highly contagious virus. Businesses have started talking to employees about how to keep going in the face of an outbreak that is still not entirely understood.
Unlike hurricanes, where emergency planning focuses on bringing people together in safe places, a contagious infection like swine flu calls for social isolation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students get sent home, possibly for a week, if a case of swine flu is confirmed at their school. Across the nation, schools — even those with no flu cases — were closing Thursday.
"One of the things we're going to have to do very quickly is let parents know that's a possibility," said Carol Madura, coordinator of emergency response and crisis management for Pinellas schools.
Her district is exploring ways to deliver lessons to students at home so their studies aren't badly disrupted.
If it surfaces in a local school, swine flu "is going to impact the budgets. It's going to impact the calendar. It's going to impact delivery of instruction," said Steve Ayers, Hillsborough school district's liaison for emergency planning. "It could impact graduation."
Even if they're closed for their normal business, schools could remain an important community gathering point. In Pasco, the district has drawn up plans with state and local health departments to use school sites for vaccinating the general public, if necessary, said acting health supervisor Lisa Kern.
Businesses need plan
Closed schools pose a childcare nightmare. But workers without children also have reason to be concerned. One concern is whether people who fear losing their jobs in this economic climate will call in sick when they don't feel well.
For local businesses, that's just one worry in a long list created by the threat of a swine flu pandemic.
Progress Energy told employees Thursday to take seven days off starting today if they or immediate family members recently traveled to Mexico. Employees will get paid leave or work at home if possible, said spokeswoman Suzanne Grant.
Employees planning to visit Mexico will be required to stay away from work seven days immediately after returning. Those days will be unpaid unless they use vacation time. The company also reminded employees to stay home if sick and follow basic hygiene steps like hand-washing.
The TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach ordered portable hand-sanitizing devices for lobbies, meeting rooms and other common areas. Housekeepers will put hand wipes in each guest room daily and spray rooms with antibacterial liquid, said Keith Overton, chief operating officer for the resorts.
If a case of swine flu is identified in the Tampa Bay area, he said, the resort will monitor employees reporting to work for fever symptoms. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or higher will be sent home or go to a clinic for a blood test. They'll need a doctor's note to return for work.
"We're doing these things to give a sense of comfort for guests,'' Overton said.
Health officials ready
State health officials have been planning for a pandemic that could reach Florida for about three years, noted Steve Huard, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Health Department.
He said health officials are communicating daily with hospitals to make sure they have the latest information. They are reviewing strategies for distributing medication to the public at large.
Key emergency centers like Tampa General Hospital are turning to plans already in place. For now, TGH is expanding its use of signs that encourage people with respiratory problems to wear masks.
Should a full outbreak occur, Tampa General could place the hospital on lockdown, so everybody who enters the hospital is screened for flu symptoms. It could cancel elective procedures, so health care workers could focus on the sick.
"Everybody is going to be in trouble if we hit record numbers, because we know that resources are something that we can't control," said Peggy Thompson, director of infection prevention at Tampa General Hospital. "Our best avenue is preventing people from getting sick and providing antiviral medication to them if they do get sick."
Officials say they're thinking beyond the immediate situation.
"We have to use this opportunity over the next few months to think about what plans we have in place and be prepared for whatever may come in the fall," said Donna Petersen, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Public Health. "We really can't become complacent when this one dies down, which I expect it will."
Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit tampabay.com/health.