Pandemic preparedness faces test

Simulations to include surge in patients, shortage in staff

June 18, 2008|By Jasmine Jernberg | Jasmine Jernberg,SUN REPORTER

Scores of employees of the Anne Arundel County Department of Health and Fort Meade will descend on the county's two hospitals this morning with complaints of fevers, body aches and fatigue in a wide-ranging test of the county's preparedness to face a flu pandemic.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore Washington medical centers will practice assessing a surge in patients to the emergency department, amid their own mock shortages in staff, while the Department of Health and the Office of Emergency Management will tackle their own challenges of having staff reduced by influenza and directing their remaining resources.

The joint effort will be the first time all the groups have come together in a realistic exercise.

"The more we can plan for now, the better that AAMC can design protocols for the future and the more streamlined our response will be," said spokesman Justin Paquette. "Our main goal is protecting our patients in the future."

The Annapolis hospital is expecting about 40 mock patients from the Department of Health from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and will be treating the influx of patients along with "affected" staff members as they arrive. Hospital personnel will practice assessing emergency situations and directing patients in a security lockdown with only one open entrance.

The exercise is not expected to interfere with normal hospital activity. There may be staff with medical masks, but information desk personnel have been instructed to inform patients and visitors that it is only a drill. Fliers will also be distributed to explain the event.

Baltimore Washington Medical Center will be expecting 80 to 100 mock patients from Fort Meade and the county Department of Health. According to the hospital's director of emergency nursing, Carol Ann Sperry, this number is consistent with levels several weeks into a flu pandemic. The center will triage and direct treatment for the patients, address an atypical doctor-to-patient ratio and test an auxiliary treatment area that can handle an additional 80 patients.

Regular patients can expect unusual traffic patterns and limited parking, though the drill will not affect treatment.

"You want to be able to perform when your community needs you the most," Sperry said. "That's how basketball players get good at what they do. They practice, practice, practice. And that's how we get good at what we do."

At the Department of Health, employees will arrive to a thermometer reading, testing all staff for potential infection. County Health Officer Frances B. Phillips said that in line with typical pandemic statistics, 30 percent of the staff will be "infected" and transferred to local hospitals. Remaining staff and management will assess how many employees remain and determine which clinic and business operations must remain intact and which can be cut back or suspended.

Phillips believes this is especially important for Anne Arundel County, because pandemics can spread quickly by way of international travelers entering the country through BWI Marshall Airport.

"I think it is so important our public health system be on our toes in the event of any biological emergency," she said. "It is a continuing matter for the county to remain vigilant."

jasmine.jernberg

@baltsun.com

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