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Philadelphia Bioterrorism Response Exercise

June 26, 2007

PDRILL25-C This weekend, Philadelphia took part in only the second test of distribution of antibiotics using the postal service in the nation.  See the article from the Philadelphia Inquirer here.

Short and to the point, the exercise was intended to simulate the response to a biological attack in three zip codes in Philadelphia.  The SNS was pretend-activated, the State received and catalogued the “meds” and the Post Office delivered simulated meds to households in the “affected area.”  The simulated meds were just small cardboard boxes about the size and shape of what folks would received in a real event.  Health officials coordinated a public information campaign in order quash rumors and let folks know that this was just a test.  A similar exercise took place in Seattle late last year, and supposedly plans are being drawn up to hold more exercises in several other cities.

The folks that I know who actually observed the exercise said it was a mixed bag.  Some parts of the exercise worked very well, and some parts didn’t work so well.  One person said, “That’s why you hold exercises, so you don’t encounter these problems for the first time on the day of.”  Another echoed his feelings, saying, “It’s been a learning experience.  We know now what we can count on, and what needs work.”

Some of the areas that needed some work included the receipt of the simulated meds, informing the public that this was just a test, and problems with fitting the cardboard boxes into the mail slots.  The good things?  Most importantly, the Post Office delivered more than 50,000 simulated pill bottles in less than a day.  In short, it worked.  There’s some kinks, but it’s believed that this might be a potential solution should some sort of SNS activation occur.

A quick scan of the blogosphere has uncovered some mixed feelings.  The majority of the blogs expressed cynicism, believing that this was just another crackpot “homeland security”-type waste of money and time.  And given what most people know about governmental preparedness, I can’t say that I blame them.  Events such as Hurricane Katrina have colored folks’ feelings toward agencies like FEMA and DHS – and I’ll be the last person to fault them for those feelings.  One postal blog noted the exercise and received comments, presumably from mail carriers, implying that they wouldn’t show up.  History shows us a different picture, though.  After 9/11, NYC was flooded with offers of assistance, as was the Gulf Coast after Katrina.  One can hope that the same would happen if the situation shown in the exercise were to occur.  Other posts showed a lack of knowledge, saying that postal carriers would have to dress in full hazmat gear to protect them from the chem/bio attack.  This is untrue, as antibiotics would only be distributed after a bio attack, and simply prophylaxing postal carriers would protect them in that event.  A chemical emergency would require hazmat suits and render antibiotics useless.

A final criticism raised by at least one blogger, and by several local news stations, though, was valid, and that was about the boxes not fitting into the mail slots.  This is a legitimate problem in Philadelphia as many of our houses are older, so I asked one of my observer friends what would happen in such a situation.  They said that the postal carriers would be instructed to leave the medication on the front doorstep.  This would serve as incentive for people to stay home in the event of antibiotic distribution, cause the postal service would make no guarantees that the medication would be safe on the doorstep.  The idea is, “Stay off the streets so you’ll be sure to receive your antibiotics.”  Unfair, yes; but it does sound realistic.  Barring that, a secondary distribution method is being planned for those who cannot or did not receive the medication.

All told, I’m glad that our city participated in this exercise.  People who saw it in action thought that it was both a valuable learning experience and a validation that it could indeed be done.  It may have cost a lot of money in overtime and preparation, but as I’ve heard several people say when talking about emergency management/response and public health preparedness exercises – I’d rather waste the money and have that situation never happen, than to have it happen and the confusion of the exercise happen then.

More information here.

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