Mock ‘plague’ at PSU gives health workers practice

Hundreds of volunteers lined up in the Smith Ballroom Wednesday for an exercise by county health officials to practice strategies for rapid distribution of antibiotics in the wake of a bioterrorist attack.


The mock emergency medical facility, hosted by the Multnomah County Health Department, was designed to train city employees and other volunteers to give antibiotics to 350 persons per hour should an infectious disease be purposefully released into the environment.


The scenario involved the release of the pneumonic plague at a crowded festival. The potentially deadly and infectious lung disease can be passed through the air from one person to another and symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain and the possibility respiratory failure. The bacterium that causes pneumonic plague can also be found in fleas and rodents.


Mock medication drills have been performed regularly since Sept. 11, and entail a variety of different scenarios, said Gary Oxman, a Multnomah County healthy officer. Volunteers acting as infected persons were given identification tags that included their age, sex, any already-existing conditions and current medications.

Some volunteers were encouraged to behave uncooperatively or spread rumors of a terrorist attack. The identification tags also included acting directions urging volunteers to complain about long lines, act mentally disturbed and play nursing mothers in need of a place to breastfeed.


The exercise aims to help county workers stay calm in the event of disaster, said Gina Mattioda, director of the Multnomah County public affairs office.


Most of the apprehension occurs during preparation for the drill rather than the actual event, Oxman said. “The anticipation is actually worse than the performance.”


Oxman said the mood of the drill is kept purposefully quiet and calm, because if the volunteers dispensing the medicine keep a calm attitude, so will the patients. “That’s what health care providers do routinely,” he said.


The pneumonic plague can also be carried by animals, Oxman said, adding that the lessons county workers learn at the drill are “very applicable” to the Avian flu, an illness that many in the medical community fear will be the next pandemic if the virus mutates into a form passed easily from human to human.


After check-in, a screener reviewed the patients’ symptoms and determined the best antibiotic or referred them to a doctor if their circumstances were unique.

The mock medical workers passed out M&Ms in lieu of real medication, along with instructions on proper dosage.


Organizers of the medication drill hoped for 700 students and community members to volunteer as patients. Anyone who volunteered received a raffle ticket for a chance to win on of two iPOD Nanos.