Who has you covered during a public health emergency?

By guest columnist Ashley Kelmore, Preparedness

It’s early September and people from all over have travelled to Puyallup to eat ice cream and visit newborn farm animals at the State Fair. But soon after the fair closes, someone gets sick.

As part of Public Health's emergency exercise, Walgreen's tested procedures for getting medicine quickly to residents. The exercise was held before Walgreen's actual work hours, so volunteers from the Public Health Medical Reserve Corps showed up at 5 am to play the part of customers.
As part of the exercise, Walgreen’s tested procedures for getting medicine quickly to residents. Volunteers from the Public Health Medical Reserve Corps showed up at 5 am to play the part of customers.

We learn that a toxic biological agent was released during the last days of the fair, and as more people fall ill, health departments must work to sort out what medication is needed, what is available, and what is the best way to get it to those who need it.

Thankfully this scenario is fiction, created for a drill that brought staff from four county health departments, state Department of Health and heath care partners together to participate in a two-day exercise in October.

Medication to the masses

At Public Health – Seattle & King County alone over two dozen people served in different roles, ranging from pharmacists dispensing medication, to public health staff working in Health and Medical Area Command (HMAC), to policy makers discussing different medication distribution strategies.

So, how DOES medication get out to the public, exactly? Well, after the anthrax attack in 2001, the federal government put together a stockpile of medications that can be sent to states, and we have spent years writing plans for how to distribute these medications throughout the community in an efficient and equitable manner. As part of those plans, our Operations staff use information about what medication is available and who is impacted to determine how to get the medication to the public.

Preparedness in action

During this exercise, we determined that a mixture of previously identified public medication centers and pharmacies would get medications to the most people. With that decision made, the staff and volunteers in HMAC took steps to support the medication distribution.

In Logistics, we activated security contracts and located drivers to transport medication to distribution sites. Finance and Administration called up Public Health staff and Public Health Reserve Corps volunteers to work at the medication centers. And in Planning, staff gathered information for decision-makers and the public.

Obviously no one wants to see this scenario play out, but, as with any other emergency, we need to be prepared. That means practicing our internal operations while having the tough conversations under less stressful conditions. Being free to ask questions and think through choices when the stakes are low helps us learn what to expect when the stakes are high.