`Attacks' test readiness to combat bio-terrorism

10-day exercise involves Colo., N.H.

May 21, 2000|By COX NEWS SERVICE

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - "Virtual patients" began reporting to Denver-area hospitals yesterday as a multi-agency mock biological warfare drill was begun to test the ability of public health and law enforcement agencies to respond to a real attack.

The exercise, announced in advance, is to last 10 days and will involve local hospitals, mayors and police, and top federal officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno and other members of the Cabinet.

Ordered by Congress, the bio-terrorism "attack" in Denver coincided with a mock chemical warfare attack in New Hampshire.

The FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other agencies sent participants to both Colorado exercise and the chemical weapons walk-through in Portsmouth, N.H.

Although the date of the drill - being called "TOPOFF," for "top officials" - was known in advance, participants were not aware of its scope and were not told the details. As of yesterday afternoon, for example, public health officials had not determined what "disease" had caused patients to appear in hospitals.

Even without the surprise factor, organizers of the drill hoped it would identify weak points in the government's ability to respond to an attack, said spokesmen for agencies involved in it."The goal of the exercise is to assess the nation's crisis and consequence management capacity under extraordinarily stressful conditions," said Gina Talamona, a Justice Department spokeswoman.

A Denver FBI official told reporters covering the $3.5 million simulated bio-terrorism attack here that because of "simulated intelligence," the bureau already had information of terrorist activity in the area. In addition, the FBI said, it had identified and taped off a "crime scene."

In Portsmouth, exercise organizers used a concoction made of garlic and Gatorade to spread a foul-smelling, "chemical warfare" cloud over the start of a make-believe charity foot race.

CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said that because public health agencies in various parts of the country vary greatly in their ability to respond to a biological terrorism attack, the outcome of the Denver exercise - "good or bad" - would not reflect the overall level of preparedness of the U.S. public health system.

State and local public health officials have complained that many areas are poorly equipped and trained for dealing with a germ warfare attack, even though they will be the first line of defense, along with hospitals and local physicians.

There is a five-year CDC program aimed at getting the nation's public health system in shape to respond.

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