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Last Updated

31 Jan 2003

Source: Newsday, May 23, 2002.


City Simulates Bioterror Disaster

By Margaret Ramirez, Staff Writer

If the city were hit by a biological terrorist attack, would officials be ready to dispense mass medication to thousands of infected people?

In preparation for such a disaster, city officials yesterday simulated an attack and conducted a six-hour medication dispensing drill at Pier 92 in Manhattan.

John Odermatt, commissioner of the Office of Emergency Management, said the goal was to treat and prescribe medication to 1,000 people per hour.

"This will help us simulate a biological attack,” he said. "In the event of an actual attack, we hope to use this as a model and set up several medication dispensing centers around the city.”

While federal officials recently warned of potential terrorist attacks in the city, Odermatt said yesterday's drill was unrelated to those warnings. The drill originally had been scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the World Trade Center attack.

"What we're doing is a long-planned exercise. It has nothing to do with recent events. It has nothing to do with 9/11,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the city health commissioner. "Today is about preparedness. You can never be too prepared.”

More than 600 police and fire cadets took part in the simulation, playing patients requiring immediate medical help. Health department employees asked the "patients” about their age, sex and reactions to the biological agent.

After questioning, the patients were directed to a medication dispensing area, where they received appropriate drugs. For the drill's purposes, the prescribed medication took the form of M&M's, Starburst fruit chews or Skittles.

One scripted conversation between a patient and a health worker related how a disaster might affect an infected family. A police cadet playing the role of a head of household was asked a series of questions by an interviewer: "Do your children appear toxic? Are any of them having trouble breathing? Does your infant have fever or chills?”

At a national conference of emergency management officials, biological attacks also were discussed. Marcelle Layton, an epidemiologist with the city health department, explained why the agency was taken by surprise by the anthrax outbreak.

"All of our planning had been founded on a worst-case scenario, the release of inhalation anthrax, not cases of cutaneous anthrax,” she said. "We were still able to modify the program quickly to respond to it.” She said many decisions were made on the fly because there was "no good data” available on outbreaks at the time.

Staff writer Graham Rayman contributed to this story.