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Hopes of Free Health Care Dashed by Swine Flu

More than 10, 000 people were expected to show up at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds this weekend to take advantage of a host of free medical services.

But after reports of swine flu began circulating around the country, and a 9-year old boy from Lorain County, became the State's first confirmed case of the disease, the Ohio Department of Health recommended that the event be called off.

ideastream health reporter Gretchen Cuda has the story.

Erica Thoms had been looking forward to the event for months. She had signed up as a volunteer as soon as she read about it in the paper, hoping to help in whatever way she could.

THOMS: I emailed immediately because I had seen the 60 minutes story about the clinic down in Tennessee, and I knew OK - I wanna do that, definitely.

Thoms isn't a doctor, a nurse, or in any way connected to the medical field. She says she simply believes that everyone deserves good medical care. And she was disappointed to learn that all the hard work she and more than 2000 other volunteers had invested would go to waste, and that this weekend, many needy patients would go without.

THOMS: It frightens me that people aren't going to be able to get their teeth pulled or find out their blood pressure needs watching. Those types of things.

Robert Jennings of the Ohio Department of health says the recommendation to cancel the health fair was based on a host of factors that officials felt made the event a significant health risk - one confirmed case of swine flu in the immediate geographic area, and a significant number of people gathering in one place - some of whom could be sick. But if the health fair was too risky, what about other large gatherings?

JENNINGS: Would that state epidemiologist have made that same recommendation if we were talking about, you know, a Browns or an Indians game? Not. The recommendation, probably, and I can almost say 100 percent , would not be the same.

Jennings says the decision was based on the information they had at the time and the Center for Disease Control has since backed up the state and local recommendations. Governor Strickland is staying out of it.

STRICKLAND: Well I would not second guess the professionals who have a deeper knowledge of the science than I have.

PONSKY: We gotta trust that the people in Columbus that are sitting in the health department know about this stuff much better than I do, so we gotta take their advice.

That's Zac Ponsky - who organized the health fair. When push comes to shove he concedes it's better to err on the side of caution, but that doesn't change the fact that it's disappointing to have to let down the thousands of people who were counting on them. And what's more, he says putting the breaks on an event of this magnitude is no small feat.

PONSKY: All these people that have been calling from Atlanta and Michigan , how are they gonna find out? and are they just gonna show up? What are we gonna do if they show up at midnight on Friday night?

And that's just the people...they still have to reverse trucks of supplies and equipment coming from all over the country... and find something to do with the supplies they already have.

PONSKY: I have thousands of volunteer T-shirts , 6 thousand hot dogs were purchased to feed all these people and so much donated water and equipment and the insurance policies that we purchased for the weekend ...I don't even know how to wrap my mind around the fact that its not happening.

But Ponsky says the logistical nightmare has an upside that may make it all worth it in the end

PONSKY: You know, we never had the event, but we brought the city together. Everybody wants to do what they can to make sure this isn't lost . And we're gonna do it. We're gonna make sure that this is an ongoing sustainable program because everybody has this feeling now ... that we have to.

Ponsky says he'll be meeting with a team of organizers in the next few days to determine the best way to proceed. One option under consideration is a series of smaller clinics that wouldn't draw as many people, and therefore be less of a public health threat.

Gretchen Cuda, 90.3