What would happen if a pandemic bird flu made its way into Putnam County?
How would local health department, hospital and law enforcement officials respond?
Is there a way to stop the illness from spreading once it gets inside county borders?
Those were just a few of the questions discussed during a first of its kind bird flu teleconference conducted in Greencastle on Monday.
A crowd of close to 20 representatives from many local agencies, including health department, sheriff's office, city police and fire, emergency management, hospital, schools and mayor's office attended the two-hour work session offered by the Putnam County Health Department.
Participants in the tabletop exercise included those from District 7 of the state Homeland Security office. Putnam County officials were able to work through the list of bird flu scenarios -- via the Internet -- along with representatives from Parke, Vermillion, Vigo, Sullivan, Greene and Clay counties.
The western Indiana counties that make up the district would presumably work together to deal with any kind of influenza outbreak should it occur locally. One fact that came out during the session was that counties would have to rely heavily on local resources, and each other, in dealing with a flu outbreak.
State health officials, who took part in the teleconference, said they would be able to provide limited resources to the counties during a flu outbreak, especially if members of their own staff were dealing with the illness.
"We need to keep everyone as informed as possible and we'll get through this," Putnam County Health Department official Steve Walters said after the meeting.
The tabletop exercise started out with a fictitious case of people coming down with flu-like symptoms after traveling back to Indiana from Europe. Problems arose when state and local officials were not adequately notified of the problem until after those who had contracted the illness arrived back home.
One official attending the teleconference in another county suggested that U.S., and consequently state and local, officials would not know about the ill travelers until after they had arrived at the airport. By then it would be too late to quarantine those passengers before they started spreading the illness to others.
According to the scenario, the flu would quickly begin spreading through the local communities to the point that hospitals would be overwhelmed with too many patients and would have to start turning people away.
Questions that arose during the teleconference included: What would happen to the patients who the hospital has to turn away? How would law enforcement deal with the civil unrest that may occur at the height of the disaster? If a vaccine was found, would there be enough for Putnam County residents and how would it be distributed?
Another aspect that arose during Monday's discussion concerned how a flu outbreak would affect the county's population of criminal offenders.
Putnam County Sheriff Mark Frisbie, who attended the conference, said he's putting together a plan that may include releasing offenders who have misdemeanor charges or non-violent felony charges against them in order to lessen the spread of the illness within the jail walls.
Participants also questioned how law enforcement would handle crime, especially if looters began targeting local pharmacies or other business. How would they handle irate patients who get turned away at the hospital?
Whatever does or does not happen with the bird flu, health officials say it's important that any response be a combined effort of all local agencies, including health, law enforcement and emergency management.
"The more we work together on this the better off we're gonna be," Walters said.
Monday's exercise was the first of its kind for the district and was paid for through Homeland Security dollars.
Walters said he was pleased with the turnout on Monday and that he'll continue receiving daily updates from the Centers for Disease Control on the flu's spread and will notify local agencies as needed.
"A lot of the people are interested in learning more and that's important if we're gonna have programs like this," Walters said. "We need to get them thinking about it now so that we're more prepared to handle it if it actually happens."