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Last Updated

31 Oct 2002

Source: Associated Press, April 13, 2002.


Three-Day Bioterrorism Drill Begins in an Oklahoma Town


McALESTER, Okla., April 12 -- One of the most complex bioterrorism drills ever undertaken began today with an airplane buzzing the city to simulate a deadly attack, and doctors handing out thousands of jelly beans as pretend medicine.

State health officials planned for as many as 10,000 people to take part in the three-day exercise in McAlester, a city of 18,000.

The drill was prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax deaths last fall.

"We're looking to create a model that can be duplicated in other communities across the country," said Dr. Timothy Cathey, medical director for the Pittsburg County Health Department. "A crisis is what happens when you're attacked. A disaster is what can happen if you're not prepared."

In the scenario, a World War II-era C-47 airplane released a fine spray containing pneumonic plague, infecting 95 percent of McAlester's population and killing 120 people by Saturday afternoon.

As the drill played out today, health officials pretended that patients were arriving at hospitals and doctors' offices with fever, chills and coughs. Within a few hours, law enforcement officials began arriving at the county health department to pick up one-week dosages of the antibiotics Cipro and doxycycline -- jelly beans, actually -- for officers and their families.

Health officials planned to distribute 10,000 packets of jelly beans and 1,000 pediatric juice doses within 24 hours.

Nearly 700 volunteers were expected to administer fake antibiotics at five spots around town on Saturday morning.

About 60 Boy Scouts were to act as patients on Saturday at McAlester's Army Ammunitions Plant, where doctors will set up a triage station. Many of the boys will go to the hospital by ambulance and bus; some will go to a fake morgue.

In a real attack, the bulk of the medicine would come from the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, secret stashes of medicine located throughout the nation.

McAlester officials put in a mock request for the antibiotics, and a National Guard unit in Oklahoma City planned to practice sorting the drugs and then fly medical supplies by helicopter to McAlester.

Besides the plague scenario in McAlester, there will be a mock outbreak of smallpox in Tulsa and a staged attack of botulism in the water in Lawton.

The idea for the Oklahoma exercise came in October, as Americans were worrying that crop-dusting planes could be used to spray deadly germs.

The drill is a follow-up to a national program last summer at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. In that exercise, officials pretended that Iraqi-financed Afghan terrorists were spraying the smallpox virus into shopping centers in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta.