Health chief details smallpox preparation to area officials

Workers to get shots

plan for makeshift clinics in outbreak being drafted

March 11, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

With smallpox looming as a possible terrorist weapon, Carroll's health officer said yesterday his department is arranging for the vaccination of workers who could orchestrate a vast and immediate immunization program for county residents.

A team of 15 health and emergency workers from Carroll County is to be immunized Friday at a Baltimore County regional vaccination center, and Carroll County General Hospital soon will vaccinate about 100 of its staff, Larry L. Leitch, director of Carroll's Health Department, said in a meeting with the county commissioners and members of the county's legislative delegation.

Plans also are being drafted to set up six clinics at schools throughout the county to vaccinate Carroll's 159,000 residents in the event of an outbreak.

Officials said the only cost to the county is in staff time because the federal government is providing the vaccine.

In phase one of the federal smallpox vaccination program, local health departments are required to establish a clinical smallpox response team and every hospital is expected to have people vaccinated to handle any exposure to the virus, Leitch said. If the federal government moves to phase two, all health and public safety workers would be asked to voluntarily undergo vaccinations. In phase three, vaccinations would be offered to every citizen interested in taking them, he said.

When asked what would trigger phase three, Leitch answered, "Exposure anywhere in the United States. My best guess is that the president would declare a national emergency."

Public information

Leitch's staff has prepared announcements for area newspapers, television and radio stations that give residents details on where they would go for the vaccine and when.

State Sen. David R. Brinkley, who recently received a similar briefing at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, urged Leitch to keep the public informed of plans.

"When there is improper or no information, panic ensues," said the Republican, whose district includes part of Carroll and Frederick counties. "The media is integral to the success of this mission. In theory, we would have time in a bioterrorism incident."

The plan calls for dividing the county along its election district lines and setting up clinics in six of the county's largest schools. Leitch would not reveal which schools would be used as clinics.

`Falling into place'

"Theoretically, we could vaccinate 150,000 people in three to four days, working 24 hours each day," he said. "We have a skeletal plan and have identified people who would work with us. Things are falling into place as we plan, but to be realistic, this would start off bad and get worse."

County Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said he would support Leitch's recommendations.

"We have to do what we are doing to have security," Minnich said.

Leitch gave officials a brief history of smallpox, a contagious and sometimes fatal disease that killed up to 300 million worldwide in the 20th century.

International alarm

The last case in the United States was in 1949, and the last in the world was in 1977 in Somalia. The World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.

"Health officials have told us that a smallpox case anywhere in the world is going to be an international emergency," said Leitch, a former Marine who recently retired from the reserves after 30 years in the military.

Smallpox has no cure and no treatment other than routine nursing care. Those who were vaccinated in childhood should not consider themselves immune to the virus, Leitch said.

"We are going on blind faith here in preparing for this threat," he said. "We hope the federal government has actual intelligence indicating there is a real need for this level of preparation."

Anyone exposed to smallpox should be vaccinated within three to four days, he said. The United States has enough vaccine available to handle a national emergency, Leitch said.

Formulating a plan

The Health Department has put together two response teams, each with a physician, two registered nurses, health educators and a sheriff's deputy.

They have been working since January to develop the emergency response plan.

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