Health Commissioner urges pandemic preparation

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(Host) Flu season is just about here. But public health officials say that’s nothing compared to what they’re certain will eventually come: a worldwide flu pandemic.

Health officials say Vermonters won’t be able to go out in public during a pandemic. So they recommend families prepare by stocking their pantries.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd went grocery shopping with the health commissioner to learn more.

(Ambient sound from grocery store)

(Sneyd) Vermont Health Commissioner Wendy Davis has her shopping list in hand.

She says a pandemic will come. A good place to prepare is here, at a grocery store.

(Davis) "A lot of the items on our list are dried foods, things that have a long shelf life.”

(Sneyd) Davis calls this, "Stock up. Stay at home.”

Today, she’ll buy many of the things that a typical family of four would need to get by for two weeks.

Public health officials anticipate families won’t be able to go to work, school or the store during a pandemic.

(Davis) "The idea behind that is that people might need to be home for a period even of up to two weeks while everybody’s getting over being ill and while we’re trying to contain the spread of illness.”

(Sneyd) Burlington is one of nine communities around the country that are part of a pilot project with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The goal is to be ready when a flu pandemic arrives. That’s right – it’s not if, but when.

History tells us, she says, that a virulent, deadly flu strain will explode into a pandemic. That’s what happened in 1918 when the Spanish influenza killed thousands.

(Davis2) "And we think it’s not unlikely that it could occur fairly soon.”

(Sneyd) With so many people so sick during a pandemic, public health officials say society will have to shut down for a period.

Business need to plan how they’ll operate for two weeks without their staff actually showing up for work.

So, Commissioner Davis says, consumers should shop. The Health Department has a list of what people should stock up on.

(Sneyd) "So, how much of this list because they’re not fresh things, are about good nutrition and how much are just to survive two weeks?”

Davis: "Well, actually they really are about good nutrition because there’s a heavy emphasis on foods that are a good source of protein. And foods that are good source of fiber. There’s thoughtfulness about not a high fat content.”

(Sneyd) A big jar of peanut butter goes in the cart – along with a couple jars of jelly, for flavor. There’s dried milk, raisins, nuts, cans of pumpkin and diced tomatoes.

(Davis) "So we got our rice. And we want to pick up some dried beans or lentils.”

(Sneyd) She picks up a five-pound bag of pasta, flour, sugar. Even a jar of salsa.

(Sneyd) "Is salsa something that’s just an extra or is it something that you think people should have?”
Davis: "Well, it’s on the list but it’s there to think about using to sort of spice up and flavor things a little bit more. So it’s not an absolute. I think part of the reason it’s on the list is it’s got a reasonably good shelf life, includes some vegetables and things that are reasonably nutritious. And it’s just gonna add a little spice to recipes that otherwise might not be as flavorful.”

(Sneyd) After about a half-an-hour, the cart’s getting full.

(Sneyd) "So, are we ready for the checkout?”

Davis: "I think we pretty much are.”

(Sneyd) The cart doesn’t have everything on the list. Commissioner Davis says consumers shouldn’t feel like they have to get everything at once. They not be able to afford it. Davis says pick up a few things on every run to the supermarket. Before long, you’ll be stocked.

(Sneyd) "So, what’s our total? $98.96. We did pretty well.”

Davis: "We did very well.”

(Sneyd) To get a full supply, the Health Department figures, would cost closer to $200 for a family of four. Davis says families will be glad they made the effort when they’re stuck at home for weeks.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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