A week after the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, letters with Anthrax spores were mailed to several news outlets and two U.S. Senators’ offices. These bioterrorist acts killed five people and made 17 others sick. The criminal was never found or brought to justice.
The letters made thousands of people afraid that any white powder that they found in their homes, cars or public buildings might be Anthrax. During that time many called their local health departments for help. Nearly every health department in the country took these calls and sent employees to look into the reports and collect samples.
Because nothing like this had happened before, health departments had no procedures or training to rely on and little protection to deal with something so potentially dangerous. Despite their lack of resources and because their mission is to protect the health of the public, health department employees did not hesitate to address the concerns of their citizens.
Fortunately, almost all of the calls were false alarms. But this experience uncovered a new role for local health departments — responding to suspect bioterrorism and other public health emergencies.
For decades prior to this, health departments had been severely underfunded and, therefore, unprepared to respond to a bioterrorist attack. For example, in September 2001 most small health departments had only a few computers, if any. Those computers could connect to the Internet only through dial-up over telephone lines, which also tied up their office telephone. Staff members were not trained in emergency response and had few, if any, written emergency plans or procedures.
On Nov. 25, 2002 the Department of Homeland Security was created to improve our nation’s response to terrorism. Federal grants were awarded to equip, train, and prepare first response agencies including local health departments so they would be prepared to respond to emergencies.
Since then, county health departments’ ability to quickly respond to an incident has greatly improved along with their ability to protect health and save lives during a disaster. Plans have been developed, practiced, revised and tested again. Employees have been trained. Necessary equipment and supplies have been acquired including technology and communication systems. Planning has taken place with other response organizations and partnerships are stronger than ever. This progress was clear during the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009-2010.
Each year the health department reviews and updates existing emergency plans and develops new ones. These plans address all types of hazards that could potentially happen in Madison County. They include severe weather like tornadoes, floods, ice storms, and blizzards; dangerous infectious disease outbreaks such as pandemic influenza and Ebola; bioterrorism attacks like the Anthrax letters; Hazmat spills; water or air pollution; earthquake; civil unrest; and utility outages.
The backbone of the health department plans is the Emergency Response Plan. An updated copy is posted on the website at http://co.madison.oh.us/health/ for transparency, public review and feedback. Personal and sensitive information has been marked out for security.
This plan refers to several Annexes that address specific types of emergencies. Most of them include a number of attachments in separate documents. If you would like more information about any of these plans, please contact me at [email protected] I also welcome any comments or suggestions you have about the health department’s Emergency Response Plan.
We live in a world wracked with war and violence; more deadly storms, floods and fires; frequent chemical spills; and newly emerging diseases. We cannot afford to ignore these threats. The Madison County-London City Health District is committed to working with our partners to plan for the worst, while hoping for the best.
Pat Lentz, MPH, is the director of emergency preparedness at Madison County-London City Health District and can be contacted at [email protected] or 740-852-3065, ext. 1525.