While the normal flu season has all but faded away in California at this point in the year, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) health care professionals have watched with concern as the state has continued to experience widespread activity from the H1N1 virus, commonly referred to as the swine flu. With 33 critically overcrowded prisons potentially ripe for exposure to the virulent A Strain flu bug, CDCR medical workers were braced for the worst.
Wednesday, July 1, their fears became reality when a number of inmates in S.Q.’s minimum security H Unit became ill with obvious flu symptoms, including the persistent high fever associated with the H1N1 strain of influenza. Outside laboratory testing quickly confirmed that the prison had become infected with the swine flu.
San Quentin had become the first prison afflicted on a large scale. “And at that point,” said the prison’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Elena Tootell, the issue became how to handle it. This conversation goes all the way up to the director and secretary of the CDCR, Matt Cate.”
After consultations with officials in Sacramento, Tootell and prison officials moved quickly to isolate the infected inmates and attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
H Unit was quickly placed under a quarantine and contact with unaffected areas of the sprawling prison was cut off. In H Unit an isolation dorm was established and inmates exhibiting obvious symptoms were moved there. Meanwhile medical staff conducted frequent temperature checks while closely monitoring suspected new cases.
Infected prisoners considered at high risk were treated with Tamiflu, a medication intended to shorten the duration and severity of the symptoms of the virus.
Swine flu symptoms closely mirror those of the standard flu strain and may include coughing, chills, fatigue and shortness of breath. In some cases symptoms have included diarrhea and vomiting.
Officials in Sacramento responded to the first signs of the pandemic reaching S.Q. by providing additional resources and personnel including masks, the services of a industrial hygienist and specialized training for the prison’s medical staff.
Successfully isolating the virus became critical if S.Q. were to continue functioning in its role as a reception center. S.Q. is tasked with accepting into the state prison system prisoners from jails in 19 California counties. Prison administrators continued to manage these inmates as they entered and exited the uninfected areas of the prison.
Quickly the isolation dorm neared capacity as the medical staff identified fresh cases of the virus.
Within six days, the flu had spread to additional housing units including the prison’s North Block. The flow of inmates leaving the prison was halted in order to prevent the spread of the flu to other prisons.
The prison was soon unable to continue accepting new arrivals and S.Q.’s ability to successfully function as a reception center had become compromised.
By Wednesday, July 15, H Unit and Badger were the only areas remaining under quarantine and prison administrators decided to resume the orderly flow of inmates into and out of the prison.
According to prison officials, cases of swine flu have since been confirmed in two other California prisons.
There is currently no vaccine available for the H1N1 influenza strain.
Impending Flu season
Health officials fear that the virus will mutate and return even stronger when the regular flu season begins in the fall.
Attention is on the southern hemisphere for indications of what the H1N1 virus might do. Flu season in the southern hemisphere begins during our summer.
The World Health Organization considers the swine flu to be a global pandemic and has confirmed cases in at least 88 countries. As of July 7, ’09, the H1N1 strain has infected at least 37,246 Americans and had caused 211 deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These figures compare with the three major pandemics of the 20th century, the 1918 “Spanish flu,” which killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide, the 1957 “Asian flu,” which caused at least 69,800 deaths in the USA, and the 1968 “Hong Kong flu,” which killed approximately 33,800 Americans.