Residents line up for fake medicine in bioterrorism drill

Sunday, April 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) _ Doctors handed out thousands of jelly beans as pretend medicine Saturday during a complex bioterrorism drill that had residents faking symptoms of the pneumonic plague.

Citizens in this eastern Oklahoma town of 18,000 lined up at the local Wal-Mart, the health department office and a convention center to get plastic packets of 14 colored beans labeled Cipro and doxycycline.

Health officials wound up ``vaccinating'' 11,635 adults and 1,727 children _ topping their goals of 10,000 adults and 1,000 kids.

Boy Scouts and other volunteers faked fever, chills and cough and were taken by ambulance to the health center. Hospital workers, dressed in yellow gowns and wearing face masks, met the patients with wheelchairs and stretchers, then took them to a triage area and to operating tables. Some even went to a makeshift morgue _ a refrigerated tractor-trailer rig backed up to the hospital.

The drill, prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax-by-mail scare last fall, is one of the most complex bioterrorism exercises ever undertaken in this country, said Dr. Timothy Cathey, medical director for the Pittsburg County Health Department.

``After this, the town is much more prepared to handle a crisis,'' he said. ``If we can minimize the impact of an attack, our enemies might decide it's just not worth the effort.''

The drill, called ``Sooner Spring,'' began Friday when a World War II-era plane buzzed low across the city and released a fine spray containing pneumonic plague. The plague was to infect 95 percent of McAlester's population with the lung-attacking disease and kill 120 people by Saturday afternoon.

Health officials used radio spots, distributed fliers and spoke to community organizations to get residents involved. A weather siren and a radio address announced the drill again Saturday morning.

Pat and Paul Madden of nearby Haileyville picked up their jelly beans in one of four cone-lined drive-thru lanes at the Wal-Mart parking lot.

``I think we need to be prepared if something like this should happen _ God forbid,'' Pat Madden said.

Residents picking up ``antibiotics'' had to fill out cards with the names and ages of people in their family and whether any of them had cough or fever. They received information sheets about the lung-attacking plague and pamphlets on how to create a family disaster plan.

The drill was almost too real for some.

Cheryl Osborne, who stopped by on her way to shop at Wal-Mart, said her two boys were concerned as they went through the drive-thru.

``We've talked about it a little bit, but the kids started asking a lot of questions as we drove up,'' she said.

Law officers and health officials received their jelly beans Friday afternoon, then set up triages and medicine distribution centers around the town Saturday morning.

About 60 Boy Scouts at McAlester's Army Ammunitions Plant acted as patients, some with the plague and some with gunshot wounds they said they received in a make-believe battle with the terrorists. Military medics taped fleshy, red wounds to the boys' bodies and tagged them before loading them in ambulances.

Britton Roberts, 12, used crutches and had a fake wound on his foot. Around his neck, he carried a plastic bag labeled ``foot'' that contained his shoe. Another boy, 14-year-old Joey Hutten, pretended he was unconscious.

``I think it's very important we have this drill, but it's a little weird,'' Hutten said.

A soldier guarding the ammunitions plant was dressed in a chemical suit, complete with a breathing mask.

In a real attack, the bulk of the medicine would come from the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile _ secret stashes of medicine at locations throughout the United States.

McAlester officials put in a mock request for the antibiotics and a National Guard unit in Oklahoma City planned to practice sorting the drugs and then fly medical supplies by helicopter to McAlester.

``This has got to be real because we've got to be prepared,'' said Betty Phelps, a volunteer distributing jelly beans. ``You never know what's going to happen.''

Besides the plague scenario in McAlester, there was a mock outbreak of smallpox in Tulsa and a staged attack of botulism in the water in Lawton. In Tulsa, nine probable cases of smallpox were ``confirmed'' with 347 people exposed and referred for vaccination.

The idea for the exercise came in October, as Americans were worrying that crop-dusting planes could be used to spray deadly germs.

The exercise wraps up Monday when officials across the state meet to discuss ways to improve their response to bioterrorism. Authorities plan to keep their weaknesses secret so they do not educate potential terrorists, said Dr. Robert Petrone, bioterrorism and response coordinator for the state Health Department.