What if there were an outbreak of a deadly, highly contagious disease in Montezuma County?
Getting life-saving treatment would be the first priority. So to test the logistics of distributing essential medicine to the public, the county health department will have a live exercise on Friday from 8 a.m. to noon at the county annex.
The hypothetical emergency scenario will play out in towns and cities across Colorado on June 15-17 as part of the Public Health Emergency Dispensing Exercise.
“It is best to practice prior to a need so we can be ready if a bad day comes and keep the community safe,” said Bobbi Lock, county health department director.
On Friday, the health department will receive a call from the state about a fake highly infectious respiratory disease in the area.
Boxes of empty antibiotic pill bottles are being flown in on a C-130 to the Durango-La Plata County Airport, and Montezuma and Dolores counties’ share will be trucked in.
County and health department employees will act as the public, and line up to receive the pills. Health department staff will first screen the fake patients on medical history and medication allergies, then act out distributing pills.
“The first 100 patients get a free barbecue lunch,” Lock said. “We’re expecting 150 or so people to act as patients receiving the antibiotic.”
Public information officers will act out issuing essential notices to news media, Southwest Memorial Hospital and law enforcement agencies.
“We want to emphasize that it is an exercise, so as not to alarm the public,” said Paul Hollar, emergency manager for Montezuma County. “We hope an actual day like this never happens, but if it does, this helps us be ready for it.”
The health department will still be open on Friday, just as it would if there were an actual communitywide health emergency.
The exercise is especially important for rural health departments, Lock said, because they are so short-staffed.
“To quickly pass out pills to 25,000 people in the county would overwhelm us, so one thing we and the state want to find out is how much help rural counties would need,” Locke said.
The scenario is the first statewide medical emergency exercise that is designed to take place simultaneously. The exercise will focus on the state’s ability to mobilize antiviral medications, gloves, gowns and masks to points of distribution.
“Emergency preparedness is really growing as a discipline because of what is going on in the nation and world,” Lock said. “There is more of an alertness from public health organizations to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.”
Statewide, 119 hospitals and clinics are participating, as well as 54 public health agencies, local emergency management departments and law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Wyoming National Guard.
“Coloradans can be assured there is no immediate threat of a spreading disease,” said Dane Matthew, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response. “We are mobilizing to prepare for public health emergency scenarios and so we can be as ready as possible. This exercise is one of many drills we have been conducting around the state to practice and test our response.”
Last year, local health agencies conducted a similar exercise in which a “participant” in a bike race that started in Montezuma County carried and transmitted the pneumonic plague throughout Southwest Colorado.
“As the race moved through our region, more people were exposed,” said Keri McCune, Southwest regional epidemiologist. “And then we coordinated in containing and stopping the spread, and at the same time, followed up with those exposed.”
In La Plata County on Friday, supplies will be flown into Durango-La Plata County Airport and then trucked to staging grounds in Durango and Silverton, as well as locations in Archuleta and Montezuma counties.
Then, San Juan Basin Public Health is asking for volunteers to come to the La Plata County Fairgrounds to line up to receive the fake medication to simulate what it would be like to hand out medicine to a mass amount of people.
McCune said the first 150 volunteers will receive a free lunch from Schlotzsky’s and a first-aid kit. There also will be chances to win assorted emergency-preparedness kits. The planned exercise will last from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The emergency exercise was organized by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, The Centers for Disease Control and Homeland Security.
Durango Herald reporter Jonathan Romeo contributed to this article.