Spokane County reported its first swine flu death Monday, as public health officials prepare for the possibility of widespread infections this fall.
Tests confirmed Monday that a woman in her 40s who died in a Spokane hospital July 16 was infected with the H1N1 virus. The woman was visiting Spokane and was hospitalized with “multiple underlying health conditions” at the time, according to the Spokane Regional Health District.
The woman’s name was not released, but the Associated Press reported she was from Alaska and afflicted with heart and lung conditions. It was the eighth swine flu death in Washington state, which has reported 658 cases of the illness. Nationwide, more than 300 have died of the illness, and more than 1 million are believed to have caught it – mostly mild cases that were not reported.
Public health officials in the Inland Northwest and across the country are gearing up for the possibility of widespread illnesses this fall, coordinating with schools and public agencies to get the word out, encouraging vigilance and good health habits, and preparing for vaccination clinics if a vaccine is developed.
Though the disease has continued to spread worldwide – and has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization – the number of cases in North America has fallen off during the warmer months, as is typical for flu viruses.
“I think the public has lost track of what’s going on with H1N1 for the most part,” said Dr. Joel McCullough, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District.
But “in the fall, we certainly anticipate swine flu and regular seasonal flu will return,” he said. “The problem with this (new) swine flu is there is no existing vaccine. … Without that vaccine, you’re likely to have a wide spread of the virus.”
Vaccine trials have begun, and McCullough said he expects a vaccine will be developed and available by fall. The health district is preparing for clinics to administer the vaccine.
The H1N1 virus has not, so far, been more deadly than other flus, but it has spread all over the world and has the potential to move quickly, because most people have no immunity to it.
“We think this virus moves more easily among young people,” McCullough said.
“Certainly schools act as a vehicle to spread viruses very effectively.”
Heading into the fall, the health district will be working to get out the word that people showing signs of illness should stay home – from work, from school, from anywhere that might bring them into close contact with others.
Individuals and businesses should prepare for possible school closures and missed work, the health district said.
Cynthia Taggart, spokeswoman for the Panhandle Health District in Idaho, said her agency has been engaged in similar preparations for the fall. Idaho’s five northern counties have reported seven cases of the illness.
“We have to be ready for the worst,” she said.
Oregon officials also reported a death related to the swine flu Monday, that state’s seventh.
The worst-case scenarios outlined by the federal government are grim. If a vaccine is not developed and other control measures aren’t effective, the virus could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and affect 40 percent of the work force over the next two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
The Washington Department of Health has stopped posting a count of individual cases of the disease by county.
Tracking in Spokane County has been limited to hospitalized patients, so the reported number of cases is a small proportion of all cases, the health district said.