The outbreak of swine flu that has reportedly killed more than 100 people in Mexico and afflicted at least 40 people in the United States has not yet spread to Suffolk County, health officials have said, but local experts are on alert, aiming to detect the virus early and contain it if it does surface here.
Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Humayun Chaudhry said the county’s Department of Health Services is reaching out to hospitals, EMTs, police officers and physicians to apprise them of necessary precautions. The department will also reach out to Spanish-spreaking residents through the Suffolk County Office of Minority Health and the county executive’s Hispanic advisory board, the commissioner said, citing the fact that the epicenter of the swine flu outbreak is in Mexico.
Dr. Chaudhry said that eight people in Suffolk County had been tested for swine flu as of Monday, but none of them has the virus.
To be tested, samples must be sent immediately to a laboratory in Albany, and results are typically known in less than 24 hours, according to Dr. Chaudhry.
“The concern is that we might be dealing with a pandemic, which is sustained human-to-human transition,” Dr. Chaudhry said on Monday.
The swine flu cases that have been identified in the United States have been mild illnesses, even though the patients appear to have the same strain of the virus that was discovered in Mexico, Dr. Chaudhry said.
At Brookhaven Memorial Hospital emergency room, patients with flu-like symptoms are asked if they have been to Mexico or the southwestern United States in the past 30 days, said Christopher Banks, the hospital’s vice president for development and external relations. No patients had fit the bill as of Monday, he said.
“We’re taking precautions,” said Southampton Hospital spokeswoman Marsha Kenny. “Our protocols are if someone comes in and presents with upper respiratory problems, our medical staff decides whether or not that person should be isolated.”
“We have not seen nor do we have any confirmed cases at Peconic Bay Medical Center at this time,” that hospital’s president and chief executive, Andrew Mitchell, said on Monday. But the medical center, which is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention secure site and antiviral stockpile, is on heightened alert status, he added.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard Kubiak said there is no reason for anyone to panic, and Chief of Emergency Medicine Dr. Brian McMahon said the medical center is implementing judicious surveillance of the illness in cooperation with the New York State Department of Health.
Registered nurse Pat McArdle said the State Department of Health issued an alert on Friday night and it has continued since then.
In addition to being a staging site for fighting an epidemic, Peconic Bay Medical Center also has state-of-the-art “negative pressure rooms” that isolate patients who may sneeze and cough airborne contagions, and with the flip of a switch the entire Peconic Bay emergency room can be converted into an isolated facility, Mr. Mitchell noted.
Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom represent New York, released a joint statement on Monday in response to the outbreak.
“Our number-one focus right now is making sure our schools are safe for our children,” the statement reads. “While we continue gathering information and working hard to prepare for wide-scale emergency, we do not have a clear picture of the problem at this time. Everyone should remain vigilant and stay home if they are exhibiting any symptoms of the virus.”
Dr. Chaudhry advised using common sense, like washing hands frequently and coughing or sneezing into one’s elbow instead of the air. People who are ill should skip work, and those who are moderately to severely ill with a fever or respiratory problems should see a doctor, he said.
The New York State Department of Health hotline is (800) 808-1987. The Suffolk County Division of Public Health hotline is (631) 787-2200.