Nevadans stocking up to avert flu

Worried Southern Nevada residents have been flocking to stores, buying up surgical masks, hand sanitizer and latex gloves in hopes of protecting themselves from the possibility of swine flu infection.

At the Everything Medical store near University Medical Center, a sign on the front door told customers Thursday that all surgical masks were out of stock, with no more expected until next week.

"I ran through a year's worth of stock in two days," said Jeffrey Kelemen, who co-owns the store with his brother.

Last week, he had 25,000 masks of every kind worn by health care professionals. By Wednesday the last one was gone.

Kristen Gorski, a staff pharmacist at Lam's Pharmacy at 2202 W. Charleston Blvd., reported the same phenomenon.

"Our wholesaler has basically run out of a supply of both masks and gloves," she said.

At a Smith's grocery store in North Las Vegas, an entire shelf of hand sanitizer was cleaned out in recent days, and distributors told North Las Vegas city officials there was a 30-day back order.

Many customers buying masks were travelers flying south to border states or to Mexico and beyond. Keleman also sold a bunch to the military.

"They're worried," Kelemen said. "They hear there's a case in Nevada and, 'Oh my God, it's the end of the world.' There's definitely a panic."

Kelemen said he has three shipments of surgical masks on the way, and he might have to ration them so would-be entrepreneurs don't try to buy in bulk and resell them at sky-high prices.

On Wednesday, a 2-year-old Reno girl became Nevada's first confirmed swine flu case. She was not hospitalized and her case was described as mild.

But five tests for the swine flu strain -- two originating in Southern Nevada -- were sent Thursday morning to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine whether they are indeed the H1N1 virus.

The other three samples were from Northern Nevada. Health officials said test results are normally known within 48 hours.

Meanwhile, the number of flu virus samples from Nevadans now being tested by the state public health lab rose to 100 on Thursday, up from 70 on Wednesday.

Brian Labus, senior epidemiologist for the Southern Nevada Health District, cautioned people not to read too much into those numbers.

"It's what comes out of the CDC that is significant," he said. "When state lab tests can't rule out the strain of virus that is of concern, the samples are sent off to the CDC for possible confirmation."

"Nervous but prepared."

Some states, such as California, where multiple cases have been confirmed, have declared states of emergency. That frees up funding and supplies to fight the flu. Gov. Jim Gibbons has not declared an emergency.

Still, the possibility of a major outbreak in Nevada is being taken seriously by area hospitals.

Minta Albietz, chief nursing officer at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, said Thursday her staff is reviewing the hospital's mass casualty plan. That would include, she said, bringing in extra staff to work in case of an emergency.

"We're nervous but prepared," she said.

Albietz said hospital staff has been tested on the correct wearing of the "N 95" mask which the CDC says provides the most protection from flu-like symptoms. That mask, she said, is one of the few that actually affords some protection from small airborne particles.

Las Vegas Fire Chief Greg Gammon said emergency responders are taking extra precautions -- and it's not just to protect them.

"It's also to protect the patients," he said at a Thursday morning news conference, noting that firefighters and paramedics may be "the first ones who get the H1N1 virus. They may have the virus for one or two days and not even know it, and still be out running calls."

Dispatchers are asking additional questions when a respiratory-related call comes in, such as whether the patient shows flu-like symptoms or has recently traveled out of the country. If the call appears flu-related, responders wear masks and gloves.

Those types of calls are also being monitored with First Watch, a computer program that tracks all emergency medical calls in Clark County, Gammon said. If there's a spike in respiratory or flu calls in an area, it sends out an alert.

"It may be a specific hotel. It may be a particular neighborhood," he said. "Our firefighters don't always know that they're going into a neighborhood where there might be multiple calls."

So far, no alerts have been issued. "At this, point we don't have any reason to be alarmed," he added.

Clark County firefighters are also taking extra precautions, which is paramount when responding to medical calls on the Strip where many guests are visiting from other countries, said Scott Allison, county fire department spokesman.

Las Vegas police said Thursday they are asking incoming inmates to the Clark County Detention Center who are exhibiting flu-like symptoms whether they've been out of the country recently.

Schools are also taking precautions.

Faith Lutheran Junior and Senior High School on Hualapai Way is upgrading its cleaning supplies and putting a hand sanitizer in every classroom, said the school's executive director, Kevin Dunning.

School officials also contacted parents this week to see whether they would send their middle school children on a choir trip to San Diego today. One parent backed out, but Dunning is confident that the trip will go on as planned.

School district officials are in daily communication with the Southern Nevada Health District and are sending a letter home to parents asking families to take necessary health precautions, such as frequently washing hands and staying home if ill.

How testing works

Labus wants Nevadans to understand how the flu virus testing process works.

He pointed out that if an individual goes to his family doctor with flu-like symptoms, the doctor will generally take nasal swabs that can be tested in the office. Within 30 minutes, Labus said, the physician will know if the patient has the flu.

If the patient has influenza B, he can immediately be ruled out for swine flu. However, if he has influenza A, the physician will take further samples and have them tested by the district's lab or another state lab.

At the state government lab, testing can soon determine whether the influenza A strain is one that has been dealt with in the past. If it is a unique A strain, it is sent on to the CDC, where a determination of swine flu can be made.

Hundreds of employers are also being advised on the correct way to deal with an outbreak.

Shaun Haley, an attorney with the Las Vegas branch of Fisher & Phillips, the nation's largest employment and labor relations law firm, said clients have been sent a checklist outlining what to do.

"You need a plan," he said.

Haley said employers should consider developing a workable sick leave policy for emergencies and realize that telecommuting may be the way to ensure that work still gets done.

The CDC reported Thursday that because of "swine flu like symptoms" it was holding in voluntary isolation nine travelers seeking to enter the United States legally from Mexico.

A source at McCarran International Airport said that none of the individuals now in isolation were in Southern Nevada.

Review-Journal writers Alan Choate, Jim Haug, Scott Wyland, Lynnette Curtis and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at or 702-387-2908. Contact reporter Brian Haynes at or 702-383-0281.