Although an avian flu pandemic is still purely hypothetical, Salt Lake County leaders want to make sure they're ready to handle an outbreak that could stall services and put residents in quarantine.

The County Council voted Tuesday to set up a committee to delve into the issues that could crop up with an avian flu pandemic, including how vaccinations would be distributed, how hospitals would cooperate with government and how the county would take care of quarantined residents.

"Whether or not it is this avian flu that becomes a pandemic, it is entirely appropriate we tackle these issues to get prepared," Councilman Mark Crockett said.

Gary Edwards, director of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, told council members that concrete plans are needed specifying who will be in charge and how the county will operate in case of an outbreak.

In particular, Edwards said, the county needs to make decisions on whether schools will close, which county services would continue and even if transportation would have to be curtailed.

"We need to go a little further than we have as a county," Edwards said. "These are tough issues, tough calls to make."

In particular, Edwards said the county needs to:

Enhance year-round surveillance for new virus infections

Conduct drills with health-care facilities

Implement measures to keep sick students and faculty away from schools

Establish priority groups for vaccination

Prepare for arrival of ill passengers via airplanes or buses

"Many of these things we're working on. Several of them we need to ramp up," Edwards said.

One of the key obstacles will be coordinating with all the hospitals, government groups and health officials in the county to have a central clearinghouse for information. Each hospital cannot be giving out different information, Edwards said, and must collaborate with only one spokesman for the public.

That communication system will go a long way in rumor control, he said.

In addition, Edwards added the county needs to decide how to care for home-bound residents who are on quarantine, a requirement for those exposed to the virus, or in isolation, the second step for infected residents.

In addition to meals and health screenings, those isolated residents will likely need mental health services as well, he said.

"A lot of these things we could do, but we want to discuss it ahead of time," Edwards said.

In other business Tuesday, the County Council tabled a decision on whether to grant White City township status. The District Attorney's office said the area is still shy of population requirements.


E-mail: estewart@desnews.com