"Once the pandemic starts, very little can be expected from the government," Toner said. "This is not meant to be critical of the government, but there's only so much that the government can do, and it can't do it in 5,000 communities at one time."
Perhaps its most important role will be providing information, Caplan said. "I think from the point of view of the government, they need to have some very clear and transparent rules in place so that the public understands what's going on," he said. "If they have to restrict your movement, if they have to quarantine people, why it's going on, that it's not permanent but will last a few weeks."
Caplan said such things as imposing a quarantine and determining how to ration masks would be difficult. "People are skeptical, too," he said. "because they watched the response to Katrina and they're not sure they can trust the authorities."
For more information on how communities can prepare, click here.
Best-case scenario: Schools shut down for extended periods of time, saving the lives of many children, teachers and staff who could be infected in close quarters.
Worst-case scenario: Schools stay open, parents who must work send their children to school, hastening the spread of infection.
Experts said it is very likely that schools and day care centers will be shut down as soon as a pandemic begins. "They're incubators for infection," Caplan said.
But Toner said he is skeptical that it will be completely effective. "I'm not sure that it's the right thing to do, if for no other reason than a few weeks is not enough," he said.
But if you don't send kids to school, what are you going to do with them? "Most parents can't stay home to take care of kids," he said, "and if they do, they can't go to work. Most people need to work. Day care is worse. There are not any great options, but I think the school systems will decide to close."
For more information on how schools can prepare, click here.
In preparing for a bird-flu pandemic, two things are certain: Knowledge is good, panic is bad. But the more we know, the more frightened we tend to get, which doesn't help in the panic area.
"The more aware we are of a risk, the more afraid we are," said Ropeik, the risk expert. "Awareness will be up, and so will our worry, with the first bird in North America, and then just magnify that a zillionfold with the first human case in North America or the United States. And magnify that a zillionfold when word breaks out anywhere in the world should the mutation happen that allows it to become human to human."
Not to say bird flu is not scary -- it just may not be as bad as we expect. "The two factors, newness and awareness, are characteristics of risk that make them seem scarier," he said. "Now sometimes they really are scarier and sometimes they aren't, but the fear bells will be hit with those -- people will go to hospitals a lot more, rush to doctors for any kind of vaccine, the price of Tamiflu on eBay will go sky high and people's stress levels will rise."
And worrying, he said, can only make everything worse. "Stress suppresses your immune system," he said, "so the more worried you are about getting sick, the more likely it is that you will, or that your sickness will be worse or possibly fatal because your worry is making it harder for your immune system to protect itself."
His advice? Be prepared, but also be calm.
"Stay informed and try to keep things in perspective," he said, "so you don't stress out about any risk."