Preparing for the worst

By Ed Brock

The band played on as the volunteer victims of a faux anthrax attack filed into the gym at Mt. Zion High School to receive bottles of "medicine."

It was all just a test by the Clayton County Board of Health on procedures for handling a bio-terrorism event in the county.

For about three months before Thursday morning's exercise the board of health had recruited about 350 volunteers, about 200 of whom played the roles of victims of the attack.

"I have spoken to 15 different organizations," said Lisa Webb, emergency preparedness specialist for the board of health.

Clayton County is one of five metro-Atlanta districts that were tested Thursday morning by the Georgia Division of Public Health to determine their readiness to dispense the necessary drugs to treat the toxic agent used in an attack. Those drugs would probably come from the Strategic National Stockpile that is held in the ready to be sent to Georgia within 12 hours if local medical supplies are depleted.

"The idea is that something was released at the mall or the Georgia Dome," said Sheryl Taylor, spokeswoman for the board of health.

In the event of a real attack like that, the media would be asked to broadcast an alert that tells the head of a household containing any person who may have been exposed in the attack report to one of three "rally points." The volunteers in Thursday's simulation then proceeded to such rally points where they were put onto buses and escorted to the central drug dispensing location, in this case the high school.

The reason for the rally points is to avoid traffic congestion and possible panic at the dispensing station itself, Taylor said. Anybody showing signs of infection would be sent to the hospital, not on the buses.

"We're checking for infection when they get to the rally point and we're looking for signs of infection when they get here (to the dispensation station)," Taylor said.

On the ride to the dispensation station the victims received a briefing on what was supposed to be happening. At the station they formed lines to go inside where they would fill at forms asking them about drug interaction and possible allergies to the drugs that were to be given out at the station.

Inside the volunteer victims were divided into three lines, one for families with children, another for households with only adults and another for people with medical issues like allergies. Taylor said volunteers in the latter line really did have such issues as an allergy to ciprofloxacin or doxycycline, the two drugs that would be used to treat an anthrax outbreak.

Anthrax is a bacteria that was once used in biological weapons. In 2001 somebody released anthrax through the mail to several media offices on the Eastern Coast, killing five people.

The point of the test was to find out how many people could be processed in an hour and how long it took each person to be processed, Taylor said.

During the drill the high school's band played in its regular practice, but their lively marching tunes didn't alter the mood for volunteer victim Lillian Parker of Ellenwood.

"Everybody seemed really intense and really serious," said Parker, a nursing teacher at Clayton State University. "You wouldn't have known it was a drill."

A major aspect of the drill was getting the participation of volunteers from the Hispanic community, Taylor said, because they are the third largest population in the county.

"We want to make sure that we can reach that population," Taylor said, adding that they wanted to see what level of translation and interpretation needed to be provided.

The Rev. Jose Rodriguez with the First Baptist Hispanic Church in Forest Park said 12 members of his congregation came to the drill.

"We had more volunteers signed up but because of work only 12 came," Rodriguez said.

Of the 12, Rodriguez said, four did not know any English, one knew only a little and the rest were fully bilingual. They made it through the lines without much trouble, he added.

The threat of a bio-terror attack is a concern among some members of the Hispanic community, but many Hispanic people aren't really aware of the threat but are focused on the "American dream." That is changing, Rodriguez said.

"It's an educational process," he added.

Also participating in Thursday's drill were the Emergency Management Agency, the Clayton County Police Department and Fire Department, C-TRAN Public Transportation, the Board of Education and the American Red Cross.

"This exercise is critical for testing our assumptions regarding mass dispensing of medication to reach the people in our country who might be exposed to a biological agent such as anthrax," said Dr. Stephen Morgan, Clayton County's public health director. "Even though a biological attack is unlikely, this exercise ensures that Clayton County and its first response partners are prepared to keep our country safe."