Across the five boroughs yesterday, numerous city agencies and more than 1,500 people participated in what was called the "largest no-notice emergency response exercise" in NYC's history. The scenario: The release of aerosolized anthrax, necessitating that authorities distribute doses of doxycycline or ciprofloxacin (cipro) to residents.
The Department of Health set up Points of Dispensing (PODs), which are sites where people can pick up antibiotics. For this exercise, 30 were opened across the city, but, depending on the scenario, it can be more or less. And you may have even seen a POD before: There recent hepatitis scares at restaurants and markets prompted the DOH to offer free vaccinations at schools in the Bronx and Upper West Side.
At a POD located in Harlem's P.S. 153 Adam Clayton Powell, the school's cafeteria was transformed into an intake zone full of volunteers ready to direct people coming to pick up medication. The volunteers working were told that an emergency drill could happen this week or next, but other than that, they had no advance warning until calls they received starting at 5:30 a.m.
Inside the POD, the first step for New Yorkers would be to get screened; then they would be directed to pick up medicine or to get further evaluation. The DOH has screening forms available online, so someone could actually fill out the form for him/herself and up to five other people (family members, neighbors) in advance—by the time you're at the POD, you'd be able to go into an "express line" to pick up medicine.
David Starr, the DOH's Director for Counter Measures, estimated that 3,200 people could be seen in an hour: "We want to make this speedy... It should only take people 10 minutes" from starting POD screening to picking up the drugs, which would be a 10 day dose of antibiotics.
During the drill, officials, volunteers and press waited for the truck of antibiotics to arrive. The DOH's communications explained that it was delayed by traffic—while the truck was being escorted by police cruisers, it wasn't running red lights as it would in an actual anthrax situation.
Fun fact: The antibiotics are from the CDC's Strategic National Stockpile. The CDC claims, "The SNS has stockpiled enough medicine to protect people in several large cities at the same time."
Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the first deputy health commissioner, told reporters, "The purpose of this is to see how effective we are at mobilizing staff from 13 different agencies, getting the antibiotics transported... other coordinating issues that could slow us down."
The drill's cost is $1.4 million, and the DOH won't be sharing the results because of security concerns. The Department of Health said in a statement, "Public health preparedness plays an important role for the health and well-being of all New Yorkers. Since 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks, there have been 16 known terrorist plots against New York City. There have also been naturally-occurring disease outbreaks, such as the H1N1 flu virus, and natural disasters, like coastal storms, and excessive heat. Today’s exercise will build on the capabilities we have developed in previous years to respond to public health emergencies."