A week after the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, letters with Anthrax spores were mailed to several news outlets and two U.S. Senators’ offices. These bioterrorist acts killed five people and made 17 others sick. The criminal was never found or brought to justice.
The letters made thousands of people afraid that any white powder that they found in their homes, cars or public buildings might be Anthrax. During that time many called their local health departments for help. Nearly every health department in the country took these calls and sent employees to look into the reports and collect samples.
Because nothing like this had happened before, health departments had no procedures or training to rely on and little protection to deal with something so potentially dangerous. Despite their lack of resources and because their mission is to protect the health of the public, health department employees did not hesitate to address the concerns of their citizens.
Fortunately, almost all of the calls were false alarms. But this experience uncovered a new role for local health departments — responding to suspect bioterrorism and other public health emergencies.
For decades prior to this, health departments had been severely underfunded and unprepared to respond to an intentional bioterrorist attack. For example, in September 2001 most rural health departments had only a few computers. Those computers could connect to the Internet only through dial-up using the existing telephone landline, which also tied up the phone lines for incoming and outgoing calls. Few employees were trained in emergency response and there were few, if any, written emergency plans or procedures.
On Nov. 25, 2002 the Department of Homeland Security was created to improve our nation’s response to terrorism. Federal grants were awarded to equip, train, and prepare first response agencies including local health departments so they would be prepared to respond to emergencies.
Since 2002 public health has developed, practiced, revised and tested plans. Employees have been trained. Necessary equipment and supplies have been acquired including technology and communication systems. Planning has occurred with other response organizations including healthcare and partnerships are stronger than ever. County health departments’ ability to identify and quickly respond to an unusual event and their ability to protect the public’s health has improved greatly. Because public health has added emergency response to its many other roles, lives have been saved during and after disasters.
Each year Madison County Public Health reviews and revises its emergency plans. These plans address all types of hazards that could potentially happen in Madison County. They include severe weather like tornadoes, floods, ice storms, and blizzards; dangerous infectious disease outbreaks such as pandemic influenza and Ebola; bioterrorism attacks like the Anthrax letters; hazmat spills; water or air pollution; earthquake; civil unrest; and utility outages. The backbone of these plans is the Emergency Response Plan. It has just been completely overhauled and is posted on our website at www.madisonpublichealth.org for public review and comment. If you have any suggestions to improve this plan or want more information about it, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We live in a world wracked with war and violence — more frequent and deadlier storms, floods, chemical spills, and newly emerging and re-emerging diseases. We cannot afford to ignore these threats. Madison County Public Health is committed to working with our community to plan for the worst, while we hope for the best.
Pat Lentz, MPH, is the director of emergency preparedness at Madison County Public Health. She can be contacted at email@example.com or 740-852-3065, ext. 1525.
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