WASHINGTON – Many of the nation's mayors said Thursday it's a challenge making bird flu preparation a priority when their citizens are focused on other things like jobs, education and transportation.
"It's not something you hear about when you go to Wal-Mart: 'Mayor, we've got to do this," said Carlos Mayans, mayor of Wichita, Kan.
Still, they say they're making preparations.
"We're often confronted in local government with the fact that we have real, everyday needs right in front of us that have to be dealt with, but we also have the long-term kind of planning and investment that has to take place as well," said David Berger, mayor of Lima, Ohio. "A lot of that happens behind the scenes, happens quietly."
If a global pandemic does strike, the nation's cities and towns cannot expect the federal government to save them, members of The United States Conference of Mayors were told Thursday.
"Any community that fails to prepare — with the expectation that the federal government can or will offer a lifeline — will be tragically wrong," said Alex Azar, deputy secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services.
A flu virus currently circulating among birds, the H5N1 virus, has infected 148 people and killed 79, mostly in Southeast Asia. Scientists are concerned the virus could mutate and travel from person to person, which could lead to a pandemic.
Azar told the mayors they should plan for a worst-case scenario, the kind that occurred in 1918. Using that scenario, about 30 percent of their community would become ill, and half of those people would need significant medical attention. About 2 percent of the community would die.
"If you run a small business where you employ 100 people, or you're a principal of a school with 100 faculty members, you need to plan on how you would operate if 30 to 40 of your people are absent from your work force" during each wave of a pandemic, he said.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels told the mayors that his city is planning for massive absenteeism by training workers to perform different jobs, expanding the use of telecommuting and looking at relaxing sick day policies,
"The question I think each of us is going to need to ask ourselves is: What are the local government services that are critical to provide? And how do we deliver those services when up to a third of your work force is out sick?" Nickels said.
Congress recently approved $350 million in funding to help them plan for pandemic influenza. Each state will get a minimum of $500,000 with additional allocations based on population. Some of that money has already been sent out. About $250 million will be awarded later this year, but communities will be required to meet guidelines designed to measure performance, Azar said.
Mayans, the Wichita mayor, said he would heed Azar's message.
"I think we should make it a priority. I'm not saying that it's a front-burner in our part of the country, but it's certainly something we need to be aware of, because something could happen," he said.
Mayors of small towns also said they would raise the issue when they return home.
"I don't think our constituents think it's real. As with so many things, it seems to be so blown out of proportion. And, frankly, this generation has not witnessed anything like this," said Richard Ward of Hurst, Texas. "But I did take some notes during this meeting, and we are going to prepare."