Emergency responders ready reaction to bioterrorism

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Three days after a handful of people in Cape Girardeau are hospitalized with a strange stomach illness, the number of patients who are sick from a food-borne illness has jumped to nearly 300 and law enforcement suspects that terrorists have played a role.

It's just a what-if scenario, but on Wednesday, local law enforcement, health officials, and state and local emergency responders considered the possibility as part of a terrorist exercise.

The group gathered at the Cape Girardeau Fire Department headquarters on Sprigg Street and watched as the hypothetical disaster unfolded, played out in a series of overhead projections by Aaron Winslow, the emergency response coordinator for the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services.

The group talked about how they would react, asking questions about how soon to alert the media, how one agency would work with another and how quickly the disaster could be dealt with.

"Several people in the room have never worked with public health agencies," said Charlotte Craig, director for the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center. "This gives them a chance to walk through this with us and get an idea of what would happen. It's good for us, too, because I've found out several things I didn't know."

During a break, Winslow said that it's important to get all the players in the same room.

"There are plans in place in case something like this should happen," he said. "People need to trust those systems. It also gives us a chance to fine-tune any part of the system where there may be gaps."

Winslow admitted that the chances of someone intentionally tainting the food supply in Southeast Missouri may be slim.

"It's remote, but it's not completely out of the question, so we need to be ready," he said.

Pam Walker, director of the state's Center for Emergency Response and Terrorism, said that should food be intentionally tainted, a rapid response team of medical experts would move into the area very quickly, give advice to local authorities and help with the disease investigation.

There are systems in place that monitor hospital emergency departments, she said. As soon as a number of people report similar symptoms that suggest food poisoning, a message can be sent to the state health department, she said.

The rapid response team would interview the sick people to see where the food was obtained.

"Once we identify that, we would work with the FDA and the ag department, we would get the food off the shelves as quickly as possible," Walker said. "If it were determined to be in a restaurant, we'd get that restaurant closed quickly."

Suspect food would be sent to state labs in Jefferson City and authorities would know within a day what was placed in the food and how to treat it. Medicines could be drawn if need be from the national stockpile.

"We could start working with surrounding hospitals, redirect ambulances to hospitals that aren't being overwhelmed," she said.

The FBI would also be notified if it was suspected that the illnesses were not a natural occurrence, she said.

Walker said that while it may be unlikely, everyone needs to be on the same page in case local authorities need help in similar occurrences in other parts of the state.

Knowledge also may help in early detection, she said.

"If you detect it early, there are fewer people exposed," she said. "That's the goal."

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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