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Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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District to stockpile drug in case of flu pandemic

Times Snohomish County Bureau

The Snohomish Health District will stock up on Tamiflu, a drug that treats flulike symptoms, to distribute to its employees and their family members in the event of a flu pandemic.

The purchase, which will come from an allotment the state Department of Health will receive from national stockpiles, is another step in the county's pandemic-flu preparedness.

If an outbreak were to occur, health officials here say, they would dispense Tamiflu to employees and family members so as to keep as many health workers on the front lines as possible.

"We're wanting to give employees an incentive to continue working during a pandemic flu event," said Nancy Furness, the health district's special assistant for public-health emergency preparedness. "We want employees to get treatment so they can get back on the front lines of essential public services."

State health officials say they have the option of buying about 640,000 courses of Tamiflu at less than $15 a course — a price discounted from the usual $80 to $90. One course of treatment consists of taking one capsule twice a day for five days. It is prescribed only if flu symptoms are present.

The district hopes to purchase 750 courses for its 250 employees. Officials have assumed an average household of three people. The cost will be a little less than $11,000, and the capsules can be stored for five years.

While Tamiflu has been effective against general flu strains, there is no assurance it would work as well with a pandemic flu strain, state health officials say.

"So people ask: Why would we even buy it?" said Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. "We say it's better to have it in case it does work."

The Snohomish Health District is not alone in buying Tamiflu. At the request of the King County Executive's Office, the Metropolitan King County Council has approved the purchase of 119,000 treatments and could consider buying more. Public Health — Seattle & King County is devising a priority plan for distribution should it be needed.

"We know public-health workers are a priority," said James Apa, a spokesman for the King County health agency. "But we're working out various tiers for distribution."

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While the district's initial plans focus on keeping medical personnel healthy, public distribution of Tamiflu also will be considered. Health officials have been told the state will receive another 913,000 courses of Tamiflu for public use should a flu outbreak occur.

Yet with demand so far outstripping supplies, none of these are available yet, Moyer said.

"The 913,000 is earmarked for the state, but it only comes in the event of a pandemic," Moyer said. "Nothing is being delivered at this point, since it's all still in production."

Meanwhile, most health districts statewide are working on plans to treat the public and keep vital services running. In Snohomish County, government, business and health workers have been meeting regularly to work out contingency plans, Furness said.

"We'll need a communitywide response to deal with the situation, to keep community services going," she said.

Health-district officials already have said they will need to rely on a volunteer network to help distribute flu vaccines if they became available. A flu vaccine, a preventive measure different from Tamiflu, cannot be created until a pandemic flu strain is identified. That could take six months or longer.

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

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