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Colorado - Pandemic Planning for Local Officials

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  • Colorado - Pandemic Planning for Local Officials

    The County Is Hit With a Major Flu Pandemic: How Do We Respond?
    by Gus Jarvis
    Jul 31, 2008

    RESPONSE TEAM – County and town officials planned a course of action during a mock pandemic flu outbreak exercise held in Norwood Wednesday. (Photo by Gus Jarvis)


    NORWOOD – Scenario: A pandemic of influenza has spread from Southeast Asia to 142 countries and the death toll is 100 million. Cases in the U.S. have been reported in 43 states and eight cases have been reported in San Miguel County. A county official has just died from flu-like symptoms. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed and vaccine supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile are being distributed to counties across Colorado.

    How do county- and town-elected officials, local police, public works, fire departments, and medical officials respond to this worldwide incident?

    This sobering question is what approximately 25 county and town officials tried to address during a tabletop exercise on Wednesday in Norwood. The exercise was conducted after Todd Manns, lead instructor of Incident Command Systems (ICS) for the Colorado Division of Fire Safety, conducted a class designed to teach local elected officials and town/county staff how to effectively work together to deal with an emergency scenario such as a possible Avian Flu pandemic.

    “As a county, you are aware of the fact that you have somewhat of a transient or seasonal population that goes all over the world and then they come back,” Mann said at the beginning of the pandemic response exercise. “That is a very important factor for you guys to consider in your response to something like this.”

    For the exercise, Mann separated participants into three different groups, with San Miguel County officials and staff in one, Town of Telluride and Mountain Village officials and police in another, and medical officials and town staff in a third. Once separated, Mann presented a series of slides that took the groups through the beginning stages of a flu outbreak in Asia to a full-blown pandemic here in San Miguel County.

    “Don’t expect the National Guard to come to San Miguel County in an incident like this,” Mann said. “They are going to be in Denver. It will be chaos there. You are better off managing this yourself. You will be managing this yourself.”

    Using the San Miguel County Pandemic Influenza Plan, created last year, each of the three groups evaluated its organization and objectives as the pandemic continued to worsen. “What are your objectives and priorities?” Mann asked during the early stages of the exercise, when a global pandemic had been confirmed by the World Health Organization, with 10 outbreaks in the U.S.

    “Establish an emergency operation center,” Sheriff Bill Masters answered for his group. “Set up the space, make sure there is a person there to man it and make sure it is functioning properly. We would want to control those people who are returning from those [infected] countries.”

    “Look at trying to assess the current threat in the region,” Telluride Chief Marshal Jim Kolar said. “Attempt to minimize and contain the potential threat from travelers and to educate the public regarding the threat.”

    The scenario continued to worsen.

    “An elected official who has traveled overseas appears to have a fever and the state department of health has said that an unusually large number of flu-like cases have been reported in the last 24 hours,” Mann said. “The state is discouraging public gatherings. What are your priorities and objectives now?”

    “We would start up our alternate care centers at the schools,” David Homer, M.D., said. “We need to make decisions on planning those and staffing those.” Masters suggested that a possible alternative emergency operations center be set up and that communication among the officials should be completed remotely.

    The pandemic worsens even further. There is now a full-blown pandemic in San Miguel County. There are 100 infected patients and 25 deaths so far. House quarantines are ordered but police are no longer able to monitor them. Staffing of critical services is 50 percent and two staff members have died and people need to take their place. Crime is increasing due to food shortages and periodic blackouts have become the norm.

    “What are your priorities and objectives now?” Mann asked.

    By this point in the exercise, the mood in the room had shifted. The groups became quiet as they worked on their plans to deal with the simulation’s darkest scenario.

    “Everyone working would need a backup,” to relieve staff members from 14-hour days, said Homer. “We would have to cut back on non-essential services,” Kolar said. Participants discussed how to deal with the growing number of bodies and where medical supplies would come from.

    “I would need more body bags,” said County Coroner Bob Dempsey.

    “The pandemic is a dark scenario,” said Nanci Quintana, regional training coordinator for Public Health and Emergency Preparedness. “There will be blood and there will be death. But if the citizens are prepared, death can be cut down by almost one third.” Quintana was on hand Wednesday to observe the class and tabletop exercise.

    Mann, who has taught many similar classes, said that participants in Wednesday’s exercise did well.

    “I thought they did a great job with their responses,” he said in an interview after the class. “You can tell that they have all known about the [county pandemic] plan and were ready to implement it. What was really great was the turnout. This is one of the largest turnouts I have seen at one of these exercises.”

    Practicing the ICS to prepare for major emergencies is easy, Mann told the group, suggesting that an ICS can be used to operate one or all of Telluride’s summer festivals, for example.

    “The more you practice ICS, the more comfortable you will be when a serious [emergency] comes,” he said, adding, “If you are prepared for a pandemic, you are prepared for anything.”