State and area hospitals prepare staff to treat smallpox

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   As health departments across Tennessee and the nation prepare to treat smallpox in the event that an outbreak of the virus occurs, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Public Health Office is keeping up the pace by continuing Phase One of the state's pre-event vaccination plan.
   As 2002 drew to a close, the Centers for Disease Control issued orders for all 50 states to design a two part plan to handle an outbreak of the virus - a pre-event plan focusing on vaccinating key health care workers - and a post-event plan providing for mass vaccination of the general public in a short amount of time after a case of smallpox has been positively identified.
   In January, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Public Health Office began Phase One of the state's pre-event vaccination plan by administering the vaccine to key public health workers. Those workers would later vaccinate other health care providers as well as members of the region's response team, those sent to investigate any suspected cases of the virus.
   On Monday, the public health office continued the pre-event plan by beginning to vaccinate key employees of hospitals in the eight-county Northeast Tennessee region as well as those from Cocke County. Clinics to vaccinate health care workers will continue for the next 30 days and will administer the smallpox vaccine to somewhere between 700 and 750 people, according to Beth Rader, public information officer for the regional public health office.
   "It's just the key individuals who may come into contact with the virus should a case show up in their ER," said Rader.
   The list of people to be vaccinated includes positions such as X-ray technicians, doctors, nurses, lab technicians and house keeping personnel. "It was offered to a wide variety of disciplines within the hospital, but a limited number," Rader said.
   The number of employees at each hospital was determined by the Tennessee Department of Health, according to Rader. "I'm not sure how Nashville came up with it, but they offered each hospital so many slots in order to vaccinate the staff that needed to be vaccinated."
   Hospitals submitted lists of personnel they had deemed as key to treating and or caring for smallpox patients in the event of a breakout. The vaccinations were given on a voluntary basis.
   For Sherry Fouch, a nurse in the Emergency Room of Holston Valley Medical Center, Kingsport, the choice was obvious as to whether or not to volunteer for the vaccine.
   "When it was offered, I knew I'd get it as long as I didn't have any contra indications," said Fouch. "With the threats out there, and they're definitely real, I want to be ready for it."
   To Fouch, being prepared for any challenge is part of nursing. "I'm a nurse, and especially in the ER, you never know who's coming in," she said.
   There is some risk involved in being vaccinated against smallpox. The CDC estimates that one in every 1,000 people who receive the vaccine will suffer serious side effects. The vaccine is made with a live strain of the virus, and those who are vaccinated will suffer mild side effects of the vaccine such as fever and itching, according to the CDC.
   Fouch said after she considered the risks of the vaccine, she decided to volunteer and said she is not really worried about possible complications.
   "In the back of my mind, I know that I'm going to be sick with fever and the itching, but the benefits outweigh the risks of having it," she said.