Tulare County buttons down for bioterrorism

By C.J. Barbre

Although it feels an awful lot like the cold war, the bomb shelters, the duck and cover drills, today's terrorism threat must be dealt with by government agencies including Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency which has set up a Bioterrorism & Disaster Preparedness website at www.tularecountybt.org.

&#8220HHSA has a critically important role in bioterrorism preparedness and response that includes response planning, surveillance and early detection of communicable diseases, laboratory support, emergency communications, training and education,” is the opening paragraph on the nicely designed site.

Yes, it's true there was an influenza pandemic in 1918, during World War I, that took the life of 600,000 Americans and traveled around the world. HHSA Assistant Director of Health Services Ray Bullick told the Tulare County Board of Supervisors at their Jan. 24 meeting that if those figures were extrapolated for the county's population today, 13,000 people would be in need of intensive care.

Chairman and District 4 Supervisor Steve Worthley noted, &#8220If we were to extrapolate, we would have to utilize every available space, every veterans building and gymnasium.”

And today we constantly hear about a possible pandemic from Avian flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Avian flu is caused by avian influenza viruses, which occur naturally among birds which you can link from the county &#8220bt” (bioterrorism) website. Pandemic flu is flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness that spreads easily from person to person. Currently there is no pandemic flu. Seasonal flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses.

Then there is that ominous West Nile virus which has made us afraid to go outdoors at dusk in summers - almost always the nicest time of the day - unless we are swabbed in DEET and wearing long sleeves and long pants. For all of that worry, only four people in Tulare County contracted the virus according to HHSA and three had no symptoms while one developed the fever. &#8220Less than 1% of individuals will develop serious neurological illness such as encephalitis and meningitis,” it says right in the HHSA press release to which you can also link.

But since 2002, the county has been awarded more than $4 million in Homeland Security, public fire and safety grants, more than $1 million for hospital preparedeness and almost $2.5 million for public health and regional labs. In addition to Homeland Security, funds have come from the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) Bioterrorism Preparedness grant and the Health Resources and Services Administration's (HRSA) National Bioterrorism Hospital Preparedness grant.

With this funding collaborative groups have been formed including the Office of Emergency Services made up of the Tulare County Approval Authority, made up of the &#8220gang of five” which includes city and county fire departments, city and county law enforcement and county health and emergency services. There is also a Bioterrorism Joint Advisory Committee made up of hospital representatives and public health officials. A threat, vulnerability and capability assessment was conducted in 2000 and 2003 with federal, state and local agencies.

Spacious Tulare County has gone mobile with OES. &#8220At a single point we're able to communicate with the sheriff, fire and EMS all from the same site, from a sheriff's vehicle which is a real asset,” Bullick said. They also have acquired enhanced protective equipment for first responders. There is a bomb robot with an X-ray machine, a bomb sniffing K-9, mobile decontamination and personal protective equipment including Decon showers and tents for surge capacity.

Surge capacity is when a whole bunch of people are in danger, such as small pox or anthrax exposure. The county has been able to immunize 500 people per hour in training exercises in November 2004. If they don't have adequate immunization reserves they are supposed to be able to access federal supplies within 12 hours. In July 2005 they performed successful HazMat drills.

&#8220Right now our hospitals are operating at close to 100% capacity so any blip on the screen will need surge capacity,” Bullick said. He said they have a mobile response unit or &#8220soft sided hospital” which includes 15 hospital beds and 60 cots with four M.A.S.H.-style tents with accessories. &#8220We are preparing for pandemic flu, developing our own local plan.” On Feb. 23 there will be a Pandemic Flu and Mass Surge conference at the Visalia Holiday Inn titled, &#8220The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.”

Bullick said some of the things they needed to determine are, &#8220When do we cut off the spigot for people coming in for elective surgeries. What if shopping malls are closed in the event of a pandemic? It would have a tremendous economic impact.”

Bullick concluded that all incorporated cities have signed off on the Standard Emergency Management System (SEMS) which he said equals the &#8220pecking order.” In case of an emergency, first one relies on their own resources, then regional resources followed by state then federal resources or NIMS, the National Incident Management System.

Everyone was admonished to create a Disaster Supplies Kit (see sidebar) also called a 72-hour kit which needs to contain enough food and water for each family member and pet for at least three days along with a bunch of other stuff.

District 3 Supervisor Phil Cox said his family keeps two buckets of emergency supplies in a closet by the front door. &#8220We've had it for several years.” He said one contains a crank radio so they won't have to worry about batteries going dead.

District 5 Supervisor Jim Maples observed, &#8220We've had some terrible fires, floods and freezes but nothing like illness pandemics. I know they can be very devastating.”

&#8220I realize I am the proud owner of most of the items on the supply kit list,” said District 2 Supervisor Connie Conway. &#8220I think I could collect them in three days?”

We hear you Connie.

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