"We are preparing for many, many people to be infected," Health Director Gibbie Harris told reporters at a briefing Aug. 21. "We know we've got it [the flu] in the community. It never really went away over the summer. With schools coming back and moving into a new flu season, our expectation is that it's just going to balloon."
There have been 19 confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus, also called "swine flu," in Buncombe County, and one death. But Harris said that there are probably hundreds of more cases that have not been confirmed.
For most individuals, she emphasized, H1N1 is relatively mild, though certain populations are far more vulnerable.
"The difficulty will come with the number of people that are going to be affected at any given time," Harris said. "It could be that we have many health-care workers out at one time. That will make it difficult for our hospitals and our doctors' offices to see the people that are sick. ... That's the issue for us as we move in — it's the sheer volume."
In October, county health staff will begin vaccinating children for seasonal flu with parental permission slips in local public schools. Harris said health officials hope to vaccinate 50 percent of those enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade, or about 6,000 children.
The county will also try to assist businesses and public services in dealing with a temporary loss of personnel.
"We're asking them how they're going to cross-train their staff to make sure that they have sufficient staff [so] that their primary role gets done," Harris said. "That's critical with our city and county services; the schools, the colleges, our water system and food supply need to stay up and running. People need to have gas for their cars."
The Asheville area also includes a large service-industry sector, where workers come into constant contact with the public and may, for financial reasons, be reluctant to stay home from work if they become infected. "They need to take the time off," Harris said. "And if [employers] start firing everybody because they take a week off from work, they won't have anybody to come back. So we're asking for some give and take here."
The H1N1 vaccine, which the health department will be receiving in October, will only be given to vulnerable populations: young children, pregnant women, adults under the age of 24 and those with existing medical conditions. There will not be a charge for its administration.
"We'll be getting only a third of the vaccines we expected," Harris said.
The county is working with UNCA, AB-Tech and Warren Wilson, which will all receive H1N1 vaccines to help the under-24 age group.
If a person becomes infected with the flu — either seasonal or H1N1 — the Health Department recommends that they stay home until they go without symptoms for 24 hours, unmedicated. It's recommended that people prepare a kit of emergency supplies and get a "flu buddy" to run errands and help them, Harris said. The county is also looking for volunteer nurses to assist with the vaccination efforts.
"This is still a mild virus. That's the good news. Most people will get sick and get well," Harris said. "This fall, it's going to be all hands on deck."