Protecting the Frontlines of a Pandemic

Monterey County – About a thousand people lined up for the swine flu vaccine during a clinic held by the Monterey County Health Department at Hartnell College in Salinas. "I have chronic asthma and I have a baby that I'm breastfeeding. He's only four months and two days," said Anamaria Guillermo. Renee Kennedy was also in line. "My daughter's severe asthmatic and any virus can put her in the hospital so we try to take as many precautions as possible," she said.

Across the state, clinics are being held to vaccinate those most at-risk: kids, young adults, pregnant women, and people with chronic lung disease. Not included: the nurses actually giving the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control puts health care workers fourth on its list of those who should get the vaccination. That combined with a delay in vaccine production has made for difficult decisions.

"My staff, public health staff, health care workers are very important because they come in contact with a lot of sick people. For the most part, they're gonna be sick if they get the virus, but they're not gonna die. The highest risk people are the ones that could potentially die," said Dr. Hugh Stallworth, Monterey County's health officer. Doctor Stallworth adds when more vaccine arrives, his staff is next in line.

It's a different story at some area hospitals where they don't traditionally vaccinate patients. That's the responsibility of county health departments and doctors' offices. So at hospitals like Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, they've used their supply to vaccinate employees, including infection control nurse Susan Patronik. "If you don't protect the health care workers, you won't have anybody to care for the patients," she said.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Gray says that's just one part of protecting the staff. They also isolate patients suspected of having H1N1. "You want as many layers of protection between yourself and the illness as you can create. So the gowns, the gloves, the N95 respirators, that's one layer. Vaccination is kind of another layer. Isolation is another layer," said Dr. Gray. The state requires N95 respirators for doctors and nurses who treat swine flu patients. They're similar to surgery masks but have a stronger filter.

The Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in Monterey also has a multi-layered approach. Signs surrounding the fountain in the lobby explain a new rule prompted by the swine flu pandemic: no visitors under the age of 18. "This is the first time that we've regulated visitors as far as age goes and also the first time we've regulated to just two people visiting at one time," said Dr. Rita Koshinski, an infection control specialist. "We are much better prepared than we've ever been in history to deal with something like this."

You might call that good timing considering Dr. Stallworth's prediction for the rest of the flu season. "We believe this flu season will be the worst flu season any of us have ever seen," he said. Dr. Stallworth expects emergency rooms will be inundated with swine flu patients, and hospitals will be pushed to their limits as flu season continues into the spring.