Drill tests smallpox readiness

Mock clinic is the first for Carroll County

April 09, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

McDaniel College student C.J. Schleicher gave Carroll County sheriff's deputies a scare yesterday when he apparently took a hostage at gunpoint before giving up and bolting out of a Carroll County high school.

But when Schleicher was escorted back into Winters Mill High School in handcuffs, classmates cheered him for his performance.

It was all an act. Schleicher's gun was his hand, his hostage was an employee of the Carroll County Health Department and his run-in with the law was just one of the many scenarios at a mock smallpox vaccination clinic - a first in Carroll. The deputies participated in the drill but did not know what would happen and reacted as they would in an emergency.

"It was wild," said Schleicher, a 20-year-old junior biology major. He and about 26 members of Ralene Mitschler's epidemiology class made the vaccination drill part of their class activities this semester. "The script I was given just said to act up and demand a shot."

The rest, he said, was improvised.

Schleicher walked into the school's gym around 11 a.m. and coerced a Health Department employee into playing along as a hostage, so that he could get his vaccination quickly. That's when registered nurse Pattie Barnett took over. With 10 years of experience in emergency rooms behind her, she talked Schleicher into giving up his "gun and hostage."

Barnett simulated an injection by dipping a forked needle into sterile saline and made tiny pin pricks into an orange. As soon as she was done, she put gauze and tape on Schleicher's arm. Schleicher then broke into a run for the backdoors of the gym, causing two sheriff's deputies to give chase.

Had it been a real emergency, Schleicher said, he thinks the scenario could have occurred.

"This is realistic. This is how it's going to happen," he said. "They'd be walking down the street, possibly surrounded by smallpox. They'd be paranoid, and people do crazy things when they're paranoid."

Larry L. Leitch, health officer for Carroll County, said that Schleicher's performance was the "crowning glory" of the drill, which drew 100 volunteers over four hours yesterday morning.

"The 9/11 and anthrax attacks that fall sent a message to America - especially public health folks - that we need to be ready if terrorists release smallpox," Leitch said yesterday. "Though Carroll County does not have what a terrorist would consider a high-value target - skyscrapers, national monuments - my fear is that we are relatively close to Baltimore and Washington, which do have high-value targets, and we could be put in the position of dealing with the spillover."

Eradicated in the United States by 1949 and worldwide by 1980, smallpox could be a rapidly contagious threat with even one confirmed case, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Smallpox is caused by the variola virus and is spread through close contact with infected people. A vaccination can protect people before they are exposed.

Health officials in Carroll wanted to determine how many vaccinations and how much manpower they would need in the event of an outbreak.

Volunteers arrived at the high school and were guided from station to station, starting outside the building and continuing into the school's main hallway. The stations were manned by about 50 Health Department employees.

Residents who were labeled "sick" were taken to a room and not allowed in the main building. Others had to fill out registration forms before they were taken to the auditorium to watch a 20-minute video. Then they were sent across the hall to the gymnasium to be processed through screeners and to nurses who administered the fake vaccinations.

Leitch said volunteers complained that the process took too long - about an hour per person.

"People have a tendency to be upset and anxious in this situation, so to keep running them from room to room may not be a good idea," said Leitch, who will look at ways to condense the process.

Streamlining was what "Surly Sal," also known as Judi Johnson, Volunteer Carroll coordinator, was aiming for when she showed up. Johnson feigned panic at every station.

"I'm so scared! I don't know what is going to happen," she yelled at Dale Sears, a social worker and volunteer for the Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

Sears listened patiently, reassured her and advised her to practice breathing exercises.

"I gave them trouble every step of the way," said Johnson, a mother of 10 from Westminster.

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