Emergency and public health officials assured residents at Frederick City Hall Tuesday night that they are prepared for an outbreak of natural communicable diseases, but that was not enough to satisfy many who attended the meeting.
The Containment Lab Advisory Committee was there to address how the public would be informed if an emergency arises involving pathogens that escape from high-containment chemical laboratories at Fort Detrick and in the county.
“The process you use for naturally occurring diseases is important, but we are not here to deal with that,” said activist and local attorney Barry Kissin. “We are talking about normal pathogens at Detrick…. What if you have a contagious disease you are having trouble identifying that is spreading quickly, then what happens?”
Kissin said it could “set off a panic” that local emergency and health offices could not deal with.
The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, at Detrick works with a number of dangerous pathogens to combat bioterroism that have no vaccine or cure.
The panel consisted of Jack Markey, director of the county Division of Emergency Management; Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, head of the Frederick County Health Department; and two scientists from USAMRIID.
In response to Kissin’s comments, Brookmyer said the county conducts two federally-funded exercises a year in which they prepare for the entire population to be exposed to aerosolized anthrax.
“All of a sudden there is a risk that the entire population is infected, and the pandemonium that would ensue with that,” Brookmyer said.
The health department then has to address questions the public wants answers to, such as why the outbreak occurred and whether they are at risk, she said.
The county has a national strategic stockpile of vaccines to combat anthrax and other naturally occurring diseases such as influenza and meningitis, but does not have vaccines that are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration, she said.
In the case of other pathogens without vaccines, such as those worked on at USAMRIID, Brookmyer said isolation and quarantine would be used to minimize the risk of infection.
Markey told the group that a new radio program that was launched Wednesday that allows federal, state, county and municipal agencies to talk to one another.
He also advised the public to sign up for Alert Frederick County, an emergency notification system. People can sign up on the county’s website to receive notices of emergencies in their areas.
About six people attended Tuesday’s meeting, and most of them said they were not satisfied with the answers they received, including George Rudy of Walkersville.
“We heard nothing tonight,” he said. “You convinced me you have a good plan for a standard little city, but you haven’t demonstrated you have an established communication link between the active labs.”
Former Frederick Mayor Paul Gordon, who is a columnist for The Gazette, recommended a “czar” serve at Fort Detrick to oversee all federal agencies responsible for public safety.
“Get a czar with muscle, get your congressman involved … let’s stop talking about things and start bringing out hammers and shaking them at whoever we have to shake them at because we are talking about public health, safety and welfare,” Gordon said.
The meeting became contentious at times, with speakers veering off topic to make comments about Detrick’s mission and its location in the middle of a densely populated community.
Chairwoman Beth Willis intervened several times to ask people to stick to the subject at hand.
As for the threat posed by having USMARIID in Frederick city, Lt. Col. Neil Wooten, chief of safety, security and biosurety at USAMRIID, said safety is the No. 1 concern at the labs.
“We share your concerns, they are valid concerns anytime you do research with materials we work with,” Wooten said. “Many of our people live here, we share the space with you, so it is important to us to keep the entire county safe and pristine.”