Capitol alert for H1N1 outbreak; senators and staff to get masks

Senate officials are holding internal planning exercises this week to prepare for a swine flu outbreak that could hobble congressional offices.

The office of the Senate Sergeant at Arms (SAA) has been talking with Senate offices and attending Senate luncheons since the disease first began to spread in the spring.

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“It is becoming second nature to us right now about how to proceed,” said Terry Gainer, the Senate Sergeant at Arms. “And in some respect you kind of want to say, let’s get started with it, we’ve done so much prep work, let’s begin to began.”

The U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) and the Office of the Attending Physician are planning to attend this week’s meeting with the SAA in which they will discuss a variety of different scenarios for how an H1N1 outbreak could affect Congress, including more than 10,000 staffers and nearly 2 million visitors so far this year.

Some have expressed concern for members who have a full workload this fall, saying that if they are infected it may interfere with their ability to attend committee hearings or even vote because doing so could spread the infection.

And while Gainer said senators have been advised to follow the same general guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has given to the rest of the country -- “if you don’t feel well, you shouldn’t come to work” -- he said the ultimate decision will be left up to the senators.

“Senators, like any other critical position, have to balance that,” Gainer said. “So if they’re in the midst of any particular issues, they have to see how they can work through that and fortunately, to my knowledge, it hasn’t arisen. The bottom line is there’s no special member rules.”

Neither the Senate SAA nor the House SAA is planning to offer testing for members or staff. Instead they are planning to treat any flu-like symptoms as if it is the H1N1 strain, and are advising staff to consult their primary care physician. The Senate is planning to provide masks for senators and staff.

House officials have also been holding preparatory meetings with health and security officials in anticipation of an H1N1 outbreak, and are planning to offer more formal recommendations to members in the coming weeks.

“All House and Senate officers, the Architect of the Capitol, the USCP and other support organizations have done extensive planning, to include scenario-based guided discussions,” said Kerri Hanley, spokeswoman for the House Sergeant at Arms office.

“They will be able to provide their essential support services should the pandemic escalate. Essentially we have prepared our office to provide our services using the least amount of staff possible.”

So far, there have been 124 confirmed cases of H1N1 and no deaths in the District of Columbia since the virus was first identified in the city in May, according to D.C.'s Department of Health website.

Shortly after the U.S. began to report instances of people infected with the swine flu, the Architect of the Capitol’s (AoC) office oversaw the installation of nearly 400 hand sanitizer stations throughout the Capitol complex to “prevent the spread of germs.”

“No additional hand sanitizer stations have been purchased at this time,” said Eva Malecki a spokeswoman for the AoC’s office. “As we continue to prepare to respond to any anticipated flu outbreaks, we will reassess the need for additional stations and take steps as deemed necessary.”

President Barack Obama began this month by holding a health briefing on the government’s response preparations in the event of an H1N1 outbreak.

“I don't want anybody to be alarmed, but I do want everyone to be prepared,” he said after the meeting.

And on Sept. 14 the Department of Homeland Security warned small-business owners across the nation that they should prepare to work with reduced numbers of staff in the event of an H1N1 outbreak.

Napolitano said small businesses could be particularly vulnerable to a pandemic because they often "have fewer resources, they work with leaner staffs and absenteeism can be a particular issue."

Most congressional offices are the size of small businesses with around two dozen staffers in each.

The Office of the Attending Physician (OAP) declined to comment about its role in the planning process, but a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control said the OAP had been involved in interagency planning briefings offered to all federal agencies.

“The briefings are designed to update federal agencies with the latest on H1N1 including, who is recommended to receive the vaccine, what we know about vaccine availability, and planning activities for H1N1 vaccination programs,” said CDC spokeswoman Artealia Gilliard.

The CDC has readied itself for two scenarios in which the virus either remains mild and contained or in which it mutates and becomes more dangerous.

About 45 million doses of swine flu vaccine are expected to be available by mid-October and will be made available first to healthcare workers, pregnant women, and younger adults with pre-existing illnesses.

Capitol officials did not comment on how many doses would be made available to them.