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Swine Flu 'First Real Test' For Quinn Administration: AP

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- Whether delivering medicine or safety advice in the form of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," Gov. Pat Quinn's administration is getting high marks for its response to the outbreak of swine flu in Illinois.

The outbreak, though mild so far, presents the first real test of the new governor's ability to coordinate state agencies in the face of an unexpected challenge. On Sunday, the Illinois Department of Public Health said the state had three confirmed cases of swine flu and 96 probable cases.

Local health departments said last week that they've been getting all the help and information they need. When medicine and supplies arrived Wednesday from the federal government, the administration drafted multiple agencies to distribute it to hospitals and health departments across Illinois by Friday.

"The mission was successful," said Greg Chance, legislative chairman for the Illinois Association of Public Health Administrators.

The state's chief duty is sharing information.

That means coordinating so that state agencies and local health departments know what is happening and what to do next. It also means answering questions from local officials, asking questions of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and telling the public what is going on.

Quinn frequently popped up to reassure the public that state government was on top of the situation. He did it without seeming eager to hog the spotlight and without botching the message that swine flu should be taken seriously but isn't cause for panic.

That sounds simple, but it isn't. Just look at the mockery that greeted Vice President Joe Biden's statement that he was urging his family not to fly or even take the subway.

Dr. Damon Arnold, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, also was front and center last week. He jumped from news conferences to phone calls to legislative hearings, explaining the technicalities of testing procedures and advising people on safety.

One frequent tip: To make sure you wash your hands thoroughly and keep scrubbing until you finish singing "Twinkle, Twinkle."

When Arnold was occasionally hazy on facts, such as the ages of flu patients, he came across as calm and professional.

Perhaps he remembers what happened to an Illinois health director who didn't take his job seriously. During a 1985 salmonella outbreak that killed six people and sickened 17,000 others, the director was secretly on vacation in Mexico and wouldn't return to Illinois. Then-Gov. James R. Thompson fired him when he found out.

Arnold was appointed head of public health by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and most of the procedures now being followed were developed during Blagojevich's tenure in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, anthrax scares and worries over SARS and avian flu.

Dr. Mark Dworkin, who was previously the state epidemiologist for the public health department, said intense planning means state and local officials were ready when swine flu emerged. They knew what trouble signs to look for, such as a sudden increase in a school's absentee rates, and what to do to minimize spread of the disease.

The planning so closely matched the actual events, officials say, that the Illinois National Guard had already scheduled a drill on organizing deliveries of medication and supplies like surgical masks and latex gloves. When the state really needed to make those deliveries, the Guard simply moved up its drill.

"Sometimes as taxpayers we get soured on what the government is doing with our money. But there are things they do with our money that are really useful and important. This is an example of that," said Dworkin, who now teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, has seen at least one school in her district close because of swine flu and others close in towns on the district's borders. She praised the Quinn administration for working closely with local officials and keeping lawmakers informed.

"The chain of command here is working," she said.


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