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Doctor: Human health trumps fiscal health

For three months in 1975, county officials debated tourism and public safety issues while an influenza epidemic took 76 lives.

"We'll recover from a tourist recession, but a lot of people don't recover from a disease," said Dr. George M. Dame, director of Pinellas County's Health Department.

"It's in the mid 70s out there," County Administrator Merrett Stierheim said then. "Tourists probably would be better off healthwise to come to Florida than to stay up North."

Soon after Type A Port Chalmers influenza struck in late 1974, area hospitals filled with flu patients. Dame declared epidemic conditions here in January 1975 and warned tourists to stay away. National news services carried Dame's warning.

"A half-million dollars today (for tourism) wouldn't offset what ABC and NBC are going to do to us," said County Commission Chairman Charles Rainey, one of several officials to chastise Dame.

"My primary responsibility is to protect the public's health," Dame responded while trying to halt the scourge that would subsequently affect 75,000 county residents _ mostly seniors.

During Christmas 1974, the virus struck hundreds of people here with acute respiratory infections. Deaths followed. About Jan. 19, Dame said the flu was an epidemic.

"People were afraid," said Orpha Erickson, 72, a city employee then. "We were all using the same telephone."

By Jan. 22, 1975, 30 had died. Studies found the flu vaccine only 40 percent effective. At Bayfront Medical Center, many sick were refused because they couldn't be isolated. Visitors were restricted.

Dame appeared Jan. 22 on WFLA-TV, and his message traveled nationwide: "I don't think I have any options except to ask people to stay away."

Local officials took umbrage. "You're talking about a tremendous economic impact," said Ralph Mullin who, as the executive vice president of the Suncoast Chamber of Commerce, predicted a $10-million to $50-million effect on tourism.

On Jan. 25, Dame altered his warning to include just seniors. "We don't want to scare the public."

"Mass hysteria" has already been assured, Rainey responded.

Officials asked TV networks to balance their reports. Chief airports and AAA were sent updated health information. One Northern airport told a passenger to avoid Pinellas County. A New York caller reportedly thought the county was quarantined.

At a Jan. 28 meeting, Commissioner Don Jones' proposal to establish a seven-doctor panel to advise Dame was rejected. Commissioners Rainey and William D. Dockerty said the state-employed Dame should be fired. Dame has "diarrhea of the mouth," Rainey said. "Flu's an annual event, like Christmas."

On Jan. 29, Dame appeared on WTVT-13 to proclaim the epidemic over after the number of the new infections fell to normal numbers. "This tourist mecca . . . is now open and safe again," he said.

Dame said county deaths totaled 61 on March 4. A letter by Dame's peers published in the St. Petersburg Times on March 8 vindicated his handling of the epidemic:

"The Pinellas County Medical Society . . . supports the conduct of George W. Dame, M.D.," the society's letter read. "It is contrary to our philosophy to adopt the statement heard in some business quarters, "Why be alarmed, those old people are going to die anyway.' "

A March 11 Times editorial reflected on the plague: "We are first a humane community and second a community concerned with its own economic and commercial self-interest."

In 1979, Dame resigned after being accused of using "poor judgment" during his involvement in a construction project. His obituary after his death on July 18, 1985, at age 60 "indicated that 76 persons definitely died of influenza that winter."

Rainey, 71, said recently: "I would still react the same way today. The numbers (versus) the population then were hardly an epidemic."

_ Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzelmsn.com.

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