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Mask mania: Locals prepare for swine flu

by Courteney Stuart

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news-flu-plantzTimberlake Drugs pharmacist John Plantz says he still has masks. According to health organizations, they’re best for those already infected.

Forget the economy, forget Iraq, forget gay marriage or any other hot news topics. For the last several weeks, swine flu has been the headline hog— especially with up to three cases reported in Virginia. Even as the latest reports from health organizations suggest the bug, now known by the pork industry-favored moniker H1N1, may actually be less virulent than basic seasonal flu, masks are “totally sold out,” says Meadowbrook Pharmacy pharmacist Janet Chrismore.

“It’s been nuts,” says Chrismore, noting that reports suggest the masks aren’t particularly effective protection against viruses, so those who are unable to acquire them shouldn’t be concerned. Indeed, according to the CDC, the masks are most useful at preventing someone already infected with swine flu from spreading the virus through the community– not the other way around.

That message doesn’t seem to have reached customers of several other local pharmacies, which report a booming mask business.

At CVS pharmacy on the Downtown Mall, the masks were gone by April 30, according to a store employee. And a few blocks east, masks were selling briskly at Timberlake Drugs, although the store still had some in stock as of May 4, according to pharmacist and owner John Plantz. Once that supply is exhausted, Plantz says, he doesn’t know when the next batch will arrive.

Unlike Chrismore, whose globe-hopping clientele is increasing the flow of  prescriptions for antiviral medications including Tamiflu and Relenza, Plantz says he hasn’t witnessed such reaction.

“We seem to have a stable, well-read clientele,” says Plantz. ” No one’s jumping off the deep end.”

Even those who might be inclined to overreact will have a tough time convincing their physicians to prophylactically prescribe such drugs, says James Aller, an internal medicine doctor. Stockpiles of the drug, he says, need to be maintained for emergencies, so he says he has written only two such prescriptions in the wake of the swine flu outbreak and only for people preparing to travel internationally, where access to medical care might be difficult.

“One was going to Mexico, the other to China,” says Aller. “They couldn’t change trips.”

Should people still be worried? According to Dr. Lilian Peake, district health director of the Thomas Jefferson Health District, it’s too soon to say.

“Right now, there’s not enough information,” says Peake, who says the one Central Virginia case was not in our health district, which covers Charlottesville, Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene and Nelson counties. She notes that epidemiologists from the CDC have been sent to Mexico to work with Mexican public health officials to determine the actual number of cases and to further study the origins of the virus.

At presstime, public health officials were cautiously optimistic that the virus is not as deadly as  initially feared, but were still urging caution. As of May 4, according to the World Health Organization, 20 countries had reported 985 confirmed cases of the virus. The majority of the laboratory-confirmed cases are in Mexico, where there had been 590 cases and 25 deaths. The U.S. is second, with 225 cases and one death– a Mexican baby visiting Texas.

Even if the swine flu proves to be weak, tracking new cases remains a priority since the virus could mutate resulting in a more menacing strain.

Such was the case in 1918 when an initial mild outbreak of a similar H1N1 flu strain was followed in the fall by a mutated version of the virus that killed 40 to 50 million people worldwide, according to WHO.

While seasonal flu is most dangerous for those with weakened immune systems and causes as many as 36,000 deaths per year, according to the CDC, the 1918 flu was most deadly to those between 20 and 40. Death resulted not directly from the virus but from an overly powerful immune response that killed lung cells and, in effect, caused sufferers to drown in their own secretions– sometimes just hours after the onset of illness.

Preventing a similar pandemic is why doctors have taken the latest swine flu so seriously and why massive resources are being spent to study the virus.

“It’s better,” says Peake, “to be safe than sorry.”

  • TJ May 4th, 2009 | 2:47 pm

    Looks like all those surgical masks will be collecting dust if (George) Washington is correct–

    “a computer model at Northwestern University that is predicting the epidemic’s future. Reassuringly, it foresees only about 2,000 cases by the end of this month, mostly in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston.”

    “At the heart of his simulation are two immense sets of data: air traffic and commuter traffic patterns for the entire country, and the yield of a whimsical Web site, Where’s George?”


  • I'm Just Saying May 4th, 2009 | 3:29 pm

    “Social distancing” and “Respiratory hygiene” are the new black. Cover mouth and nose when coughing/sneezing. Wash hands often. If somebody seems to have symptoms, stay at least 3 feet away.

    As for masks?

    1. If somebody sneezes or coughs near you, you’ll be happy to have a mask on, no matter what the CDC says about effectiveness. It’s other people’s “respiratory droplets” that carry the virus, and if these get in your nose or mouth (or eyes), that’s how flu is transmitted.

    2. The fear is that this flu will fade with the warm summer months, then resurge with a vengeance during regular flu season. This is what happened with the 1918 pandemic.

    3. The difference with this flu and any other is that this one is composed of three different species’ viruses: swine, bird, and human flu bugs. This has never been seen before. Additionally, a swine flu has never before been known to pass from human to human, only from swine to human, with no additional transmission.

    Sure, TJ, it will be great if everybody’s masks gather dust. Sadly, this is not likely to happen.

  • TJ May 4th, 2009 | 3:44 pm

    According to this article swine flu did pass from human to human in 1976 contrary to your statement in #3


  • m&m May 4th, 2009 | 4:28 pm

    wow. you all are seriously arguing over the hooks reply streem to a piece of news. wow. what is this world coming too?

  • Sick Of The Local Rambos May 4th, 2009 | 9:32 pm

    The world is ending in 2012.

    So, who cares about this silly flu?

  • Thanks for link May 4th, 2009 | 10:13 pm

    TJ, maybe you missed this sentence from the CDC link, under Summary and Speculation:

    “….a swine influenza antigen was included in annual military influenza vaccine formulations from 1955 to 1969.”

  • Mike Wiszowski May 5th, 2009 | 3:54 pm


    are you reffering to the Mayan prophecy of an astronomical catastrophe
    or the begininning of the Armageddon as scripted in the book of Revalations?

  • couldbe May 6th, 2009 | 11:55 am

    Maybe the Mayan prophecy and Armagedon are dependant upon each other?

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