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Pearls and Swine

Hank Sims



"The risk for contagion posed by this case likely has passed," said Humboldt County Public Health Officer Ann Lindsay, addressing reporters in what looked like the county's swine flu war room Tuesday afternoon. On the day previous, the county had received confirmation of its first case of the H1N1 influenza, a new variant of the virus that arose in Mexico last month and quickly spread itself throughout the world. And despite the fact that the new bug turns out to be far less virulent or deadly than had been feared, it turns out that the county had been extraordinarily lucky in its first brush with the swine flu.

As Lindsay told it, a local woman in her 20s had been traveling out of state last month, visiting an area where the virus had already taken root. She fell somewhat ill on April 28, and when she drove back to town on May 3 she had developed a full-blown case of the flu, as well as an attendant case of pneumonia. She checked herself into Mad River Hospital the day she got back, and stayed there, in isolation, for four days. While there, she was swabbed for swine flu germs and her sample was sent off to a state laboratory. By the end of the four days, she had recovered fully and could no longer transmit the virus to others, so she was released. None of the hospital personnel who treated her have come down ill, Lindsay said. For our purposes all indications are that the rogue strands of RNA stayed put right there in the unfortunate victim's insides, until such time as they were defeated entirely.

If you'll notice, the results from the test didn't come back for nearly two weeks. This, Lindsay said, was somewhat unusual in her experience, and likely a result not only of the swine flu pandemic but of the budget crisis gripping California. The waiting period did have consequences, she hinted, but thankfully in this case they were not severe.

"In this case, the results did not get back soon enough to be of any importance in deciding what medication to use in treating the patient," she said. "It does speak to the fact that those of us in public health feel like we are public safety entities, just like fire and law enforcement, and there are public safety elements of public health that are underfunded, and the laboratory system is one of them."

That fact is unlikely to change anytime soon. Just a few hours before the swine flu presser, Humboldt County Chief Administrative Officer Loretta Nickolaus delivered her weekly state budget update to the county Board of Supervisors. As usual, the news was even grimmer than the week before. Gov. Schwarzenegger had recently proposed revision to the current fiscal year's budget, based on ever-dwindling revenues. The state looks to end the year at least $15 billion in the hole, according to a May 14 Schwarzenegger press release; if the various budget initiatives on Tuesday's ballot failed, he said, that figure would be more like $21 billion.

Hence the recent budget revision. The biggest cuts, Nickolaus told the board, were aimed at state-funded health and human services programs -- the very programs that employ Lindsay and fund the laboratory system she was to speak of later. "Whether or not the propositions pass today, these are big, big cuts," she said. In anticipation, she said, the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services has left 200 positions vacant. On the bright side, some of the department's losses and anticipated losses have been somewhat offset by federal stimulus funding.

But Tuesday's special election didn't seem to be on many folks' minds, whatever the consequences. Crews working the polls at the Eureka Municipal Auditorium reported that only about 110 people had come in to cast their ballot by around 2 p.m. This, they said, was way, way down from the presidential election six months ago. Pre-Election Day absentee turnout was small -- around 40 percent. Earlier, at lunchtime, Humboldt County Registrar of voters reported that things were eerily quiet around her office. "At the lunch hour, our phones are usually ringing off the hook with 'Where do I vote?'" she said. "It hasn't rang since I sat down here."

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