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Mercury News

Quarantine rooms are ready. Special face shields, gowns and gloves are within reach.

But while calls to doctors and emergency room visits are rising over the swine flu scare, a survey of South Bay emergency rooms on Monday showed little panic and few crowds.

Still, for those seeking care and awaiting answers the fear of the deadly virus was real.

Doug North of San Jose, who returned from Mexico last week with a severe flu, was one of 12 people in Santa Clara County tested for the virus. He is still awaiting his test results.

His wife, Zoey North, owner of a Los Gatos medical billing service, said Doug had to stay behind in Cabo San Lucas because he was so sick.

"He had a severe flu high fever, aching body, shivers and shakes,'' she said. "He had a fan two feet from his face and was still sweating profusely.''

When he returned, he went to see a Kaiser Permanente doctor at the Campbell clinic on Wednesday. But she said she was unable, despite calls and an e-mail to the physician, to get Kaiser to see him on Friday after news of the possible pandemic broke. The Norths were particularly concerned that he had exposed fellow passengers to swine flu during the Frontier Airlines flight back to San Jose, with a stop in Denver.

"The only way I got him in this morning was to literally lie and say that the state health department demanded he be seen today,'' North said


Karl Sonkin, a spokesman for Kaiser Permanente, said Kaiser officials were looking into the case.

Joy Alexiou, spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County Health System, said the county's Valley Medical Center has seen an uptick in people coming in to be checked for flu symptoms. But that was to be expected since the public hospital has a large Latino clientele who might have recently visited Mexico or been exposed to relatives who had.

But certainly not all the people concerned about swine flu were Latino.

Sunnyvale resident Ashish Damal, 27, said he just returned two weeks ago from a trip to India and was concerned that he had might have been exposed to swine flu because he now has a severe sore throat, moderate internal fever, a runny nose, muscle pain and a bad cough.

Damal, who was wearing a face mask handed to him asked by the folks at the triage desk, was upset that he had to wait from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to see a physician's assistant, who quickly told him that he didn't have swine flu.

Low-income health clinics contacted by the Mercury News on Monday said they have not been asked to take extraordinary steps, such as calling or visiting patients who might be at risk or showing up unannounced at street corners where Mexican day laborers congregate.

But clinics such as the Gardner Family Health Network will add a flu watch.

"We're the hunters; we're in the trenches looking for the virus,'' said Dr. Ricardo G. Lopez, chief of medical services. Gardner, which operates five clinics, also has a medical van that visits the Mountain View Day Worker Center and migrant worker camps in Gilroy.

"Our biggest worry is the homeless because they're at risk and hard to find sometimes,'' Lopez said.

On the Peninsula, the Mayview Community Center in Palo Alto converted a private room for chicken pox patients to for potential swine-flu cases. A batch of medical masks is ready for the staff when the first flu-stricken patient walks in the door.

"We're asking a lot more questions about their symptoms and travel and will triage people as needed,'' said Dr. Francis Killebrew, the medical director at Mayview. Nobody fitting that bill showed up on Monday morning.

At Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, the gear aimed at preventing infection of the staff is more elaborate face shields, gowns and gloves, said Eric A. Weiss, an associate professor at Stanford University School of Medcine and medical director for disaster planning at the two hospitals.

Weiss said the Stanford hospitals have put together a "comprehensive flu pandemic plan'' over the last five years. They are prepared to beef up staffing as part of the next phase.

Since most of the swine flu cases are expected to be "mild or moderate,'' Weiss said, "you don't want them congesting your emergency departments and preventing you from taking care of other cases such as heart attacks, strokes and motor vehicle crashes.''