Keynote at Washington's Pandemic Flu Summit (As Written)

April 14, 2006

Governor Gregoire: Thank you, Mary Selecky, for that introduction. I’m grateful for your leadership of our Department of Health and for working hard these last few months to pull together this morning’s pandemic flu summit. I’m impressed to see so many people here today—I understand this is one of the largest summits of its kind in the country.

I’m also honored to be here with Deputy Secretary Azar, Dr. Julie Gerberding, General Lowenberg and all of you. We each have important roles to play. From the local health departments—like the one right here in Pierce County—to the state Health Department, to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. From local emergency management folks, to the Washington National Guard, to the Office of the Governor, we’re working in common cause to respond to the shared threat of a global pandemic.

Today’s summit holds up a mirror to all that we are doing to safeguard the health and security of the people of Washington.

Our planning partners are diverse, representing nearly every unit of government and society: From the Centers for Disease Control to the Washington State Patrol; from the Washington Department of Agriculture, to tribal governments, to local school districts, to first responders. The life-and-death risk of a pandemic only intensifies our resolve to get it right. It’s one for all and all for one.

We know that an effective state strategy requires planning and open channels of communication and coordination with the federal government. We know that an effective state strategy requires a strong state and local public-health infrastructure and a system of emergency preparedness that is second to none.

It’s this last piece—the maintenance of a public-health infrastructure—that I believe is the key. We must take care of our public-health system. We need to be proactive and we need to strategize years, even decades ahead. We begin by adopting a best-practices model in emergency management to ensure that we have the capacity to address a variety of health emergencies now and into the future. That’s the heart of our mission: To protect Washingtonians from a pandemic flu while building up a strong public-health network.

One of the three critical roles of state government is building infrastructure—education and making certain that we remain globally competitive represent the other two. I speak quite a bit about the global marketplace. I tell folks to picture Washington not as a state, but as a small nation. The 21st century revs with the lightening flow of information, technology, and resources. Still, we’re reminded of a potentially lethal byproduct—the equally rapid flow of disease in this new era of globalization.

A pandemic flu is a sobering topic, and no one wants to think the unthinkable. But make no mistake—influenza wasn’t an imaginary worst-case scenario for the citizens of Washington in 1918. That year, the Spanish Flu killed 1,600 people in Seattle alone, and 700,000 nationwide.

In late October of 1918, six-ply gauze masks were required statewide. Dancing and even religious gatherings were banned. The police began enforcing anti-spitting laws (come to think of it, I hope they still do)! In short, the routines of daily life were upended in a desperate and far-reaching attempt to save lives and prevent the spread of disease.

Just as in 1918, we can’t control what viruses might emerge from Asia, Europe, or elsewhere. Nevertheless, we have a moral obligation to prepare.

Just picture for a moment all the news coverage from a few years ago regarding SARS. Recall how much that outbreak tested our confidence as a state and a nation. Are we prepared? Can we imagine quarantines in a modern city? As we start brainstorming, we need to sear those memories into our minds and recall what’s at stake!

Washington has invested heavily in emergency preparedness, an additional $6.8 million, including the hiring of staff at the Departments of Health and Agriculture dedicated exclusively to responding to a pandemic flu

In addition, our Department of Health has developed a pandemic-flu response plan to guide our efforts in the event of a large-scale outbreak. We’ve shared this information with other agencies in surrounding states as well as Canada, and we’re working with all of them to make certain we coordinate our responses.

We also have a system in place to monitor for flu on a daily basis—including information on the outbreak of H5N1 avian flu overseas, influenza vaccines, and antiviral medicines.

Our network of state and local health departments is working with doctors and other healthcare providers to track the flu, and they send us samples from patients with flu-like illnesses. I’m happy to report that our state Public Health Laboratories now have the latest technology to test for avian flu in humans.

Lastly, we’ve developed a web site and fact sheets, recognizing that public education is a key element of Washington’s pandemic flu plan. Everyone needs to know the importance of “covering your cough” and washing your hands. During a pandemic, these good health habits will save lives.

I’m hopeful that today we can make whole the promise of keeping our families and communities safe, as I join with Secretary Azar to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. It’s my wish that this signing translates into an even-more vibrant state-federal partnership when it comes to fighting a potential pandemic flu and other health emergencies.

I’ve said many times, that each of us must see ourselves through history's lens and create a legacy by building on our success.

The only way we can make certain that our long-term vision for health security translates into meaningful action is to stay the course and to think fifty years out. Avian flu now, TB later, something else unimaginable twenty years from now. That’s why we need a proactive and flexible public-health infrastructure.

By preparing and laying the groundwork for future safety and health emergencies, history's lens will reflect kindly on all of us working together for the greater good, moving Washington forward.

Thank you.

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