Simulated bioterrorism attack puts county health department, first responders to the test (with video)

Full-scale exercise held over three days

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoJamie Bachaus with Clark County Public Health center, receives simulated medication during a bioterrorism exercise at Clark College's Gaiser Hall Thursday. The medication distribution center was part of a three-day exercise testing the county's bioterrorism emergency response protocols.

(/The Columbian)

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Should an act of bioterrorism ever occur in Clark County, public health officials are ready to respond.

This week, Clark County Public Health teamed up with local hospitals, law enforcement and state agencies to test the county's bioterrorism emergency response protocols — putting written plans into action.

The exercise — which took place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — was part of the Washington State Annual Bioterrorism Exercise. Every year, smaller-scale exercises take place in Clark County and throughout the state. But one region each year is selected to hold a full-scale event in conjunction with the state health department.

This year, Southwest Washington hosted the simulation. The last time Clark County hosted a full-scale exercise was in 2005.

This week's exercise simulated an actual bioterrorism attack, requiring public health staffers to take limited initial information and, through their investigation, identify the agent (or source) of illness, where exposure occurred and who was at risk. From there, public health staff implemented a plan to obtain antibiotics and distribute the medication to those who were exposed.

"Events like this are rare," said Richard Konrad, incident commander for the exercise. "But their consequences are so dire that we're remiss if we don't practice."

The fictional attack began last week. Local hospital emergency room staff and medical providers notified the health department about patients presenting unusual symptoms. Physicians took saliva and DNA samples, which were sent to the state public health laboratory for testing. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, local health officials began interviewing the simulated patients to try to determine how they became ill, Konrad said.

Through those interviews, public health staff determined where exposure occurred: during a fictional three-day Battle of the Bands at the Clark County Events Center. Health officials determined the 10,000 to 12,000 people who attended the event, or who entered the event center in the several days after, were at risk, Konrad said.

Disease detectives also tentatively identified, through patient interviews, the source of illness: anthrax. Lab tests confirmed the fictional bioterrorism attack involved inhalational anthrax -- the most serious type.

The exercise required the local department to work with the Washington State Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to acquire enough antibiotics to treat everyone who might have been exposed.

The simulated medication — actually cases of empty antibiotic bottles — was escorted to Clark County by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

On Thursday, the health department launched a medication distribution center at Clark College. Hundreds of volunteers filed through the center, filling out forms and answering questions about allergies before receiving one of three anthrax antibiotics, which were actually packets of M&Ms and Skittles candies.

Earlier in the week, local law enforcement agencies held an armed shooter exercise at Pearson Field. That exercise was in conjunction with the public health exercise, simulating law enforcement tracking down suspects in the bioterrorism attack.

The fictional evidence gathered during the criminal investigation — such as dispersal devices with white powder — was used during the health department's epidemiological investigation, said Marni Storey, interim director of Clark County Public Health.

Following the exercise, outside evaluators will submit reviews of the simulation. The health department will use that information to modify its training and protocols, said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County's health officer.

The simulated attacks will make the department better prepared should an actual attack occur, Melnick said.

"You can have a great plan," he said, "but until you do it, practice it, it's just an abstract thing."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com

View a video of the training on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.