Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pandemic flu drill tests city’s readiness

Lessons from ‘very important’ excercise could be applied to other disasters

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A pandemic flu has hit hundreds of homes in Laurel, forcing families to stay indoors and quarantine themselves.

That was the scenario on June 18 when police officers, city officials and about 85 volunteers participated in the city’s pandemic flu drill. The drill, which tested Laurel’s ability to respond to such an emergency, was part of statewide drill of responding to a 5- to 12-week-old pandemic flu epidemic.

The group was briefed in the Laurel City Council Chambers before heading out in police cars, armed with electronic devices and bright yellow vests. Their mission was to identify residents with a highly infectious influenza strain and get them the medications they need before the flu spread any more.

The city sent placards to 800 homes in three neighborhoods - Ashford, Laurel Hills and section one of the Villages at Wellington. About 300 homes participated, a larger-than-anticipated turnout, Flemion said.

Residents randomly chose to display placards that either said they were infected or not infected. Infected homes also listed the number of residents and who was sick.

Volunteers in police cars used binoculars to read the information, which they marked down in a Juno, a personal digital assistant. The Internet-capable device instantly transmitted the information to Information Technology professionals back at the emergency center set up at the Laurel Armory, who printed medication labels for infected residents. A point of distribution was then set up for infected residents to pick up medication.

Before, the process of documentation was all done by hand with paper that had to be taken back to the emergency operations center, Flemion said.

‘‘We’re eliminating one step by automating it in the field,” he said.

Sherry Adams, director of the state’s office of Preparedness and Response, said Laurel’s exercise may be the only one of its kind run in the state this year as it used the latest technology and a medication distribution center.

The department will analyze Laurel’s reports in the next 60 days to determine how effective the methods were.

‘‘That’s a very important exercise that they did there that we’re particularly interested in because I think it has a lot of applicability in other areas as well,” she said. ‘‘It may well be replicated around the country.”

She said Laurel’s methodology could be applied in other disaster-response situations.

Laurel was not just testing its response to the pandemic flu, Flemion said, but also a new, highly technological emergency response, using GPS and Internet-capable PDAs that can be used in the wake of natural disasters like a tornado.

A number of organizations joined the three-day statewide drill, including 21 health departments, 44 hospitals and 20 state agencies, Adams said. Laurel was one of seven municipalities running the drill, Flemion said.

Many of the 85 volunteers were part of the county and Laurel Community Emergency Response Team, whose members are trained and organize on the neighborhood level in the event of an emergency.

Bowie resident Peter Saderholm, 68, has been a CERT volunteer for six months and said Laurel’s exercise was crucial in evaluating how well the team would handle such a situation.

‘‘Unless you train and practice, and experience the difficulties, you’re never prepared for the real situation,” he said.

Greenbelt CERT volunteer Rena Hull, 66, is a retired nurse who joined the team in 2005. She said a community has to look from within to respond to a crisis.

‘‘The best way to find a helping hand is at the end of your own arm,” she said. ‘‘If our community doesn’t help itself, who will?”