March becomes closed Point of Distribution for medications during statewide exercise

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U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Perry Covington

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. – Team March participated in a massive exercise Thursday, Nov. 19, by setting up a closed Point of Distribution (POD) for the first time on base. Working with the Riverside County Public Health Department, the March team simulated the distribution of “prophies” (profophylaxis, which is a measure designed to preserve the health of an individual or society and to prevent the spread of disease) in order to combat the effects of Anthrax.

“For nearly two years, we’ve been planning a statewide exercise that we would be testing our response abilities for a bio-terrorism attack,” said Jose Arballo, Jr., senior public information specialist, Riverside County Public Health. The scenario is a massive distribution of Anthrax from some airplanes over the Southern California coast, spreading inland into Riverside County.”

The drill began Monday, Nov. 16, with a simulated Bio-watch Actionable Result (BAR), said Kim Saruwatai, M.P.H., director, Riverside County Emergency Management Department. The BAR is used to detect proteins on air filters that are set up throughout Southern California, which are then sent to their lab for further testing. The goal is to isolate and confirm any agents that are detected.

“That’s enough for us to pull together our conference call to ask if we have intel (intelligence) enough to support that there is Anthrax, or another agent,” Saurwatai said.

The intelligence she refers to would come by way of law enforcement reports of a possible attack or sick people showing up at hospitals, which could support a reason as to why certain agents were detected. “This initial report tells us that there is something, but it doesn’t tell us if it is endemic to the area, or basically that it was an intentional release,” Saurwatai said.

After the conference call, the local incident response group, which includes multiple agencies, is activated. This is where March Field gets involved.

When Marvin Tucker, who has been director of the 452nd Emergency Management since 1997, began, he reached out to establish a relationship with Riverside County EMD. “We are part of the county since we don’t have a medical treatment facility. So we couldn’t do a lot of things without the relationship we have with all the hospitals and the Department of Health – they’re the belly button for all of that,” Tucker said. “We have to rely on them. We learned to play well together a long time ago.”

Thanks to that relationship, Tucker was able to arrange for Team March to participate by setting up a closed POD on base for the first time.

“We established, years ago, that our mission falls under that umbrella of first responders,” Tucker said. “So, whether we’re talking the AMOC or the 163rd or the 452nd, (or) our fire dept, law enforcement, (or) tower operators – they’re all considered first emergency responders, so we do a closed POD at the base as well.”

In a lot of these scenarios, if it’s an act of terrorism, the Force Protection Condition (FPCON) level increases. If that occurs, Tucker said commanders would have to decide if we are willing to open the gate back up to allow additional members onto the installation. “In the case of a state of emergency, we are the airport, for FEMA coming in, for the Red Cross, all these other agencies,” he said. “In such a case, our mission essential people may not be the pilots, but the aerial porters – to unload the aircraft. Our mission could shift accordingly, causing a possible shift in who the first responders might be.”

Since this is the first time that March has set up a closed POD on base, the county provided a draft plan to do a closed POD. Tucker worked with that plan and implemented it during this exercise.

The scenario this time is Anthrax because the county has grant money and they are required to exercise an Anthrax scenario within a specified timeline, every five years, Tucker said. “We’ve taken their plan and stripped that part out because this POD (at March) could be for N1H1 or whatever the flavor of the week is.”

Tucker recruited 100 volunteers to process through the stations set up at the POD. “We are trying to figure out how we can do this, what personnel we need, what security we need, etc.,” he said. “We’ve taken this huge exercise down, and we are trying to do a baby step.”

Tucker said his top three goals are to set up a closed POD, to be able to administer the mass prophies safely, which he picks up from the county’s distribution center, and to identify any shortfalls that they might have.

The distribution center for all of SoCal (excluding L.A. County) is warehoused at an undisclosed location for security reasons. Medications are sent to each of the county health departments, who in turn, distribute those medications to their individual POD locations for distribution to citizens. Some of the PODs will be open to the public and others, closed PODs, will be for large companies, hospitals, etc.

“There are approximately 2.3 million people in Riverside County – 22 million in SoCal, (and) this is the largest simulated distribution of medications in the history of the state – nationally it is the second or third largest ever,” Arballo said. “The idea is to get something to every individual (in Southern California) within 48 hours after activation.”

In this exercise, Riverside County’s top three goals were to test the air monitoring and how quickly they can mobilize teams and characterize the extent of the release; to test their ability to receive and distribute medications; and to test their communication and coordination with all of these different partner agencies that they’re working with, Saruwatari said.

Given the recent terror attacks throughout the world, Arballo said they really had to be exceptionally careful to let people know that this exercise has been in the works for a long time.

“It has nothing to do with any particular terrorism threat. There is no indication of any threat level that is significant right now,” he said. “That’s really critical, that whenever we are communicating with people, we really try to push that message.”

This is a very likely scenario, Tucker said. “We’ve stripped out the Anthrax part and no matter what the threat is, we are going to use the same plan.”