MAYVILLE - Three and a half years ago, county officials participated in a staged exercise meant to test their preparedness for a catastrophic outbreak.
That training is coming in handy as they face the uncertain threat of a new strain of flu virus slowly spreading across the United States.
According to County Executive Greg Edwards, who was in office only a few weeks when the test was undertaken, it served as a valuable learning experience for county officials who would be on the front lines of a pandemic.
"As I recall, it was modeled after a potential bird flu type thing," Edwards said. "It really has enabled us to respond very quickly ... to this situation."
The scripted exercise spanned a 30-day period, involving county officials from a variety of fields and departments, according to Edwards, and it yielded a wealth of information for those who oversee such efforts.
"It was a substantial research project when it was completed," Edwards said. "Determinations were made where we could improve operations."
The county's preparedness in handling such an event is now being put to the test. Over the past week, public health officials have responded to a potential outbreak of swine flu right here in Chautauqua County.
They've collected samples from a child and adult who showed symptoms of swine flu and recently traveled to Mexico, where people have been hardest hit by the virus. They've sent those samples off to be tested and provided vaccines for 11 front-line responders, including doctors, who had contact with the two patients. They've also worked with officials from the Bemus Point Central School District to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading further by canceling classes and after-school activities.
Edwards also unveiled a hotline Friday for people with wondering about swine flu and used that at a news conference Friday as an example of the kind of behind-the-scenes activity taking place.
"The evidence of that is as of 5 o'clock (Friday), there will be a direct access through 211, a helpline for anyone who has questions and concerns about ... swine flu," Edwards said.
It becomes unclear what the county's role will be if the swine flu pandemic intensifies and state and federal health officials execute greater authority in managing the crisis.
Currently, the state is allowing local health officials and school administrators to decide on their own whether to close or re-open schools, according to Edwards, though it is still unclear who has the final authority to make such decisions.
"This is a constantly evolving process and procedure," Edwards said. "The state and federal governments are doing their best to try and build parameters to deal with these issues across the state and across the nation."
Edwards said those decisions are being made by county health officials and school administrators working cooperatively, but it is unclear whether either side would be able to override the other. As of Friday, only Bemus Point Elementary School and Maple Grove High School are closed, though Edwards said he is working with other school administrators to make decisions on whether to cancel extracurricular activities like athletic events.
"Certainly, Christine Schuyler as public health director is heavily involved in that," Edwards said. "It's a coordinated effort, but certainly one the county has a direct impact on."
If the swine flu pandemic intensifies next winter, when immune systems are at their weakest, state and federal health officials could decide that vaccines will need to be distributed at a massive level. In that event, according to Edwards, the county will play an important role in distributing vaccines to county residents and ensuring there are enough supplies to go around.
"We will take whatever steps necessary to make sure the appropriate number of vaccines are available," Edwards said.
As for decisions to enforce quarantines upon those afflicted with swine flu to control its spread and prevent a public health crisis, there is a protocol in place, according to Edwards, who did not elaborate.
"That's a whole different ballgame with regards to quarantines," Edwards said. "That has not been necessary to date."