The county’s public health scenario assumed a crop duster plane had flown low over Montgomery County, releasing deadly white clouds of anthrax spores in a bioterrorist attack.
In response, officials organized teams of people to dispense antibiotics — doxycycline and ciprofloxacin — to 1 million people within 48 hours.
The exercise involving about 100 county employees and volunteers Friday at Damascus High School was to test the logistics and timing of dispensing life-saving antibiotics to people in cars and on foot.
“The winds take it and pretty much cover the whole county in a very short time, and it can infect you very quickly, but you can survive,” said Cindy Edwards, senior nurse administrator for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. “We were trying to get the medicine into the hands of everybody.”
The county distributed vaccine doses during the H1N1 swine flu spike in 2009 but had not simulated a drive-through situation, said Chris Voss, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.
“It’s a way to test some of the theories we have,” he said. “There’s nothing like doing the real thing.”
Voss said getting the information helps the office make better decisions about how and where to dispense medicines in a real emergency.
One of the lessons learned was the need for more people to relieve workers during a long shift and for more behavioral counselors to deal with people under stress and holding up the line, Edwards said.
Saving time was an essential part of the exercise. Because of Friday’s rain, drivers were avoiding a large puddle of water, lengthening the time it took for dispensers to carry the empty pill bottles from the supply tent to waiting cars.
Putting up traffic cones directing cars through the puddle cut 5 feet off the walk, Voss said.
Voss said the organizers picked Damascus High because it is off Md. 27, a relatively narrow main road, and the drive-through circle and parking lot near the main entrance are small.
“We wanted to see where there were some choke points,” he said.
The exercise involved people from different agencies, including employees of the county’s Health and Human Services, Police and Transportation departments, as well as volunteers from Montgomery County Public Libraries and the county’s Department of General Services.
“We wanted to pick people as dispensers who would not do this as part of their normal jobs,” Voss said.
About eight high school students from the police department’s Explorers chapter in Rockville also volunteered as residents when the exercise switched from dealing with drive-through cars to walk-in traffic.
Screeners asked how many people were in the family and whether anyone was allergic to the drugs. If anyone was allergic, the person was diverted to a medical professional and the others were sent forward to pick up their drugs.
Volunteer family representatives received about 10 days’ worth of pills, which in an emergency would give public officials time to evaluate where to target other resources, Edwards said.
“It would buy us a little time ... to learn where the greatest impact is and what population we’d be most concerned about,” she said.
Evaluators were also on hand to track how long it took to process each person.
“We’re timing to see how quickly they can move people through the line,” Edwards said. “You’ve got to get the medicine out or lots of people would be dying — it’s critical. The idea is to get people through and out.”
Some of the drivers deliberately asked a lot of questions — for example, about correct dosages for infants or older people — but time being short, the screeners advised people to read the information sheets they received with the pills or call their doctors.
Those who didn’t speak English were referred to a translator or to a county employee with access to a translating service such as LanguageLine Solutions, a California company.
Organizers also programmed in some unexpected and disruptive situations to more closely simulate a real public emergency.
“One gentleman grabbed two boxes of pills,” said Nancy Reynaud, a library desk assistant at the Germantown Library who lives in Gaithersburg.
Her job was to hand bottles of pills to dispensers who carried them to waiting cars.
“He just helped himself,” she said about the mock thief, who was pulled aside and out of the line.
“I think it’s very realistic,” she said of the exercise.
Other volunteers feigned losing control out of panic, fear or anger. If they were irate or refused to cooperate, they were directed to a mental health professional who could spend more time with them.
Explorer volunteer Justin Chuckerel, 16, a sophomore at Gaithersburg High School who lives in Laytonsville, said he was asked to behave like an extremely stressed-out person who had “lost it.”
“I was told by the organizers to do some crazy stuff, like when someone is all hyped up,” he said.
Explorers are no stranger to such training events, Justin said, as the chapter helps out with crowd control and other jobs at public events that involve public safety personnel.
But he said he also learned something from the experience.
“I learned that the Department of Homeland Security is in very good hands and that the [exercise] and being a part of it also helps the general public know what to do in a situation,” he said.
In a real emergency, officials alert the public in various ways, including Alert Montgomery email, Twitter, local radio and TV stations, newspapers and police department listservs.
More information about Alert Montgomery and how to prepare for an emergency is at montgomerycountymd.gov/oemhs.