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24 Russell Street, Acushnet MA, 02743

Local group helps reshape federal flu response
By Becky Evans - Standard-Times Staff Writer
November 27, 2007

If the bird flu or another pandemic ever strikes, police and firefighters across the nation may owe a debt of gratitude to emergency planners in SouthCoast.

Thanks to the Southcoast Emergency Planning Partnership, proposed federal guidelines now state that U.S. firefighters and police officers should be among the first to get vaccinated against a deadly flu pandemic.

The guidelines were amended after local officials requested that fire and police personnel be included in the top category of those receiving vaccines. The original draft of the federal government's vaccine allocation plan listed police, fire and other public safety workers in the second tier, while emergency medical technicians were assigned to the first tier along with health-care providers and key government leaders.

Since police and fire officials are often the first to respond to a medical emergency, it only makes sense that they be vaccinated first so they can help the afflicted without getting sick themselves, said Acushnet Fire and Rescue Chief Kevin A. Gallagher.

Chief Gallagher sits on the steering committee of the partnership, which is composed of town government, health, safety and school officials from Dartmouth to Wareham who meet once every month or two to plan the area's response to a potential flu pandemic.

When the group looked into the state's influenza pandemic preparedness plan a year ago, it found that most public safety workers were slotted to receive the second round of vaccinations.

The group wrote a letter to former public health commissioner Paul J. Cote Jr. asking that the state give police and fire personnel the vaccine in the first round.

"Our concern is the health and safety of the men and women of our public safety departments who provide a valued service to our communities by coming into close contact with the people they serve," according to the letter.

The public health department responded that the state was following vaccination allocation recommendations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Chief Gallagher said. The group then decided to take its request to the federal agency and enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who chairs the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

When the department released a new draft of its vaccination guidelines in October, the request had been granted: fire and police personnel were listed under Tier 1.

"We're stunned," Chief Gallagher said. "You can't fight city hall, but in this case when it simply makes logical sense, it's reaffirming to know that policymakers will change their plans."

"In every community in America, firefighters are essential to responding effectively to emergencies, whether from natural disasters or global pandemics," Sen. Kennedy said in a statement. "Thanks to Chief Gallagher's determination, firefighters around the country will receive the vaccines they need in a flu pandemic so they can continue to protect the communities they serve so bravely and so well."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is accepting public comment on the proposed guidelines until Dec. 31. Chief Gallagher says he expects the amendments to remain intact.

If they do, he said the partnership will keep in close contact with the state Department of Public Health to see that the agency adjusts its own vaccine plan to reflect changes in the federal guidelines.

Agency spokeswoman Donna Rheaume said the state is keeping an eye on the federal plan.

"We are waiting to see what changes the federal government will incorporate before we change our plan," she said. "We think it's important to be consistent with our federal partners."

Contact Becky W. Evans at revans@s-t.com


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