The Loudoun County Health Department will transform Potomac Falls High School into a mass dispensing site to simulate a widespread outbreak of disease Ñ complete with candy.
County staff will simulate the administration of pills used to prevent diseases like a flu or smallpox pandemic, the plague or anthrax.
Dr. David Goodfriend, director of the Health Department, expects 150 people to staff the high school Saturday, Oct. 22, including representatives from the department, the Medical Reserve Corps, mental-health services, fire and rescue, law enforcement and school staff.
"We hope to serve 1,000 Loudoun County patients," Goodfriend said. However, local volunteers are needed to portray patients in the mock emergency exercise. "So far, we have 250 commitments."
Patient volunteers will start at triage, where staff will determine who can receive medication and who should be referred to a hospital. Then, patients will receive medical forms that will be reviewed for accuracy and completion. Next, the staff will decide which candy medications need to be dispensed. At the end, patients will have an exit interview. The department also plans to give appreciation gifts.
"We hope to have everyone taken care of in three hours," Goodfriend said. "That will be our test. If it gets done earlier, great. But we tell volunteers to come prepared for three hours."
In the event of a widespread outbreak of disease resulting from bioterrorism or pandemic, the Medical Reserve Corps is intended to respond by establishing emergency mass vaccination and medication dispensing clinics. Potomac Falls High School will function as such a clinic.
Potomac Falls High School was chosen as the site for October's exercise for several reasons. "Part of the plan is to have a flexible dispensing site. A high school is a very good resource," Goodfriend said. "We would probably use a high school in real life. The location of Potomac Falls is close to the population center and Principal Spage has been very supportive." Additionally, last year's flu clinic exercise was held in Leesburg so the department searched for a different location.
A REGISTERED NURSE and Ashburn resident, Diane Henzey joined the Medical Reserve Corps a year ago and participated in the flu-shot clinic the department sponsored last year. She plans to participate in October's exercise.
"Anytime you have a large-scale operation, especially one involving the public, you have to practice it," Henzey said. "I hope to learn better ways to dispense medication in the shortest amount of time to prevent disaster. That's really important Ñ this is about preventing, not treating the sick."
Indeed, in the event of such a disaster, it is important that sick people do not go to clinics. "Clinics are for healthy people to prevent them from getting sick. In a real emergency, we would probably tell people already sick to stay home," Goodfriend said. "For some diseases, like SARS, it's best to stay home and get over it. It's unnecessary to go to a hospital and expose the people there to SARS."
The mock emergency exercise will test standards associated with timeliness and appropriateness of the mass distribution of medication. For timeliness, the department hopes to serve 500 people an hour.
"For appropriateness, there is a significant standard," Goodfriend said. The staff will need to identify sick people before they enter the building. "We also need to make sure that people receive the right medications. For example, if someone is allergic to Cipro we need to make sure that person doesn't get the M&M version of Cipro."
This mock emergency exercise is not just intended as a drill for those people responsible for safeguarding the public. The goals for this exercise are twofold. "First of all, we want to make sure that our Medical Reserve Corps is comfortable and well-equipped. We want to learn how to do this better and more efficiently," Goodfriend said.
Secondly, Goodfriend expects this exercise to alleviate the volunteers' confusion and frustration during a potential emergency as well as help them better understand the necessary steps to keep the public safe. "We really want to serve the community so that they can be more familiar with the process."
THE ONLY WAY to measure the county's preparedness in a widespread outbreak of disease is to test it. But Goodfriend is convinced that the department could effectively handle such an attack.
"We are much better prepared now than three years ago as far as staffing and training is concerned," he said. "Our Medical Reserve Corps is 540 members. It's dramatically improved."
Preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, he said that in the worst case scenario everyone in Loudoun County could be served. "Our plan is within four days depending on the disease. Doctors and pharmacies could also have the necessary medication."
Henzey echoed Goodfriend's praise. "I think their ability to plan is amazingly comprehensive," she said. "They consider every possible contingency. All of the details are covered."
If such a widespread outbreak of disease does occur, Henzey wants the public to know that county services like the Health Department and Medical Reserve Corps are here to help.
"The community needs to be more aware that, if needed, we are here to take care of a disaster," she said. "There may be an announcement on the radio or TV and you'll be told exactly what to do. They need to understand that more Ñ that there are people here to take care of them."
Of course, the county hopes mass dispensing sites never have to be organized as a response to a bioterrorism or pandemic disaster. Nevertheless, it is necessary to be prepared. "We hope and expect never to have to set up multiple dispensing sites," Goodfriend said. "We can't test this without the community's help. This will help better prepare us and them."