How quickly can medication be dispensed to thousands of people in the event of a public health emergency? That was the question on the minds of public health officials during a June 18 exercise.
The exercise was held at a northwest Columbus high school and involved more than 320 volunteers and more than 120 staff from 11 central Ohio health departments, including nine employees of Madison County-London City Health District.
So much went into to preparing for this event. A planning team made up of members from all of the health departments worked for a year to put this exercise together. The joint exercise allowed the health departments to test their current plans and share best practices. In a public health emergency such as a bioterrorism release, health departments would need to get medication to residents as quickly as possible. Getting pills to people fast can save lives.
The exercise mimicked as much as possible what would happen in a true emergency. Equipment was set up and volunteers were bused to the dispensing site. Staff members were trained to perform their duties right on-the-spot. Mock medications were given to volunteers who acted as members of the public coming to pick up emergency medication. The pill bottles had to be labeled with the correct type of medication, dosage, lot number, and the name of who was to take it. Each actor received educational material about the medication ordered for them.
Some volunteers picked up enough pill bottles for very large families and some picked up only for themselves. Volunteers were randomly assigned different health conditions like drug allergies, chronic illnesses, and pregnancy to allow exercise staff to practice making decisions about what type of medication to give them.
Trained evaluators observed all aspects of the exercise to assess what was going well and what could be improved. Time-keepers worked to record the efficiency at each station. Dispensing site managers quickly made staffing changes based on where bottlenecks sprang up.
Other response agencies — The American Red Cross, Medical Reserve Corps, Central Ohio Transit Authority, Columbus City Schools, and Columbus law enforcement — participated in the exercise along with the health departments to test their supporting emergency response roles.
After two hours, more than 3,500 doses of medication were distributed. This greatly exceeded the goal set by the exercise planners. As good as that was, there is always room for improvement.
At the end of the exercise all participants and volunteers provided feedback about the exercise from their point of view. Exercise planners will summarize all comments into a report of lessons learned that can be used to improve the process, plans, training and procedures for the next time. Sharing these among all 11 health departments will benefit everyone and make every community better prepared for an emergency.
As Tanya Simpson, a member of the Medical Reserve Corps who volunteered at the exercise put it, “It’s important that the health department stays connected with the community and that the community connects with the health department. That way everyone is aware of the services available and how the community and the individuals can prepare for an emergency. It makes you feel good seeing people come together and be proactive, and knowing the resources are there, that we’re making sure they work, and seeing how we can make them better.”
When health departments practice their plans through drills and exercises like this one, their employees become more familiar with their emergency response roles and agency emergency plans are strengthened. This allows each health department to advance on a continuous cycle of improvement.
The exercise was part of the Cities Readiness Initiative within the Columbus Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The Columbus MSA is made up of 11 health departments from 10 counties (Delaware, Fairfield, Franklin, Hocking, Licking, Madison, Morrow, Perry, Pickaway, and Union).
The Cities Readiness Initiative is a federally funded program designed to strengthen preparedness in the nation’s largest cities and surrounding areas where more than 50 percent of the U.S. population resides. Through the Cities Readiness Initiative, state and large metropolitan health departments have developed plans to respond to large-scale public health threats like a widespread disease outbreak or pandemic.
Pat Lentz, MPH, is the director of emergency preparedness at Madison County-London City Health District and can be contacted at email@example.com or 740-852-3065, ext. 1525.