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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Local Agencies Assess Emergency Plan Rescue and Health Officials Respond to Terrorism Menaces

Author: Devin Zarkowky Staff Writer

Three community members and Middlebury College itself received suspicious letters resembling those arriving last week in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office, The New York Times, The New York Post, ABC and NBC. Although the local letters proved to be hoaxes, the Vermont State Health Department has yet to report its findings regarding the remaining case associated with the college.

Dealing with terror is a relatively recent concern, one that now occupies the international center stage. Though somewhat removed from the Northeastern megalopolis' urban buzz, Porter Hospital Public Relations Director Ronald Hallman describes "long-established disaster plans practiced with local agencies every year. In fact, emergency rescue personnel executed a response scenario focusing on a large building explosion, specifically the old Middlebury College Science Center." Rescue teams practiced this particular situation last spring with help from mock student "victims."

Directly following Sept. 11, regional rescue efforts contacted Vermont hospitals asking doctors and nurses to avail themselves, should the aftermath require additional medical professionals. Hallman noted that both staff and facilities were prepared to assist New York area hospitals.

Neither Porter nor Parton Health Center currently exercises any protocol specifically oriented toward radioactive, biological or chemical terrorism.

Several Middlebury students contracted bacterial meninigitis, a highly communicable disease particularly dangerous in high-density population areas, in 1995 and 2001. Though neither emergency conformed to textbook outbreak scenarios, Parton Health Center depended on Porter Hospital and Fletcher-Allen Hospital in Burlington to properly treat those affected on both occasions.

Rescue and health agencies including the Middlebury Fire and Police Departments, Volunteer Ambulance Association, Porter Hospital Emergency Response and Parton Health Center plan to meet on Oct. 31 to discuss potential responses to new threats the country faces. Reviews will continue on at least three ensuing Wednesdays until a workable strategy is designed. Community members may contribute their ideas on Thursday, Nov. 1 at a town forum hosted by the College in Mead Chapel and moderated by Police Chief Tom Hanley.

Despite recent events, Hanley states, "Acts of bio-terrorism are not the most worrisome. Middlebury is most concerned about traditional modes of terror: bombings, hostage situations and things of that sort." Hanley intends to outline relevant emergency procedures, broach the bioterrorism issue and answer questions regarding current and future town plans in either category.

In response to anthrax diagnoses in Florida, New York and Washington, D. C., the United States Federal Government ordered Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic effective in treating anthrax, from its Germany-based manufacturer, Bayer AG; President Bush intends to acquire enough of the drug to treat every American.

Currently, local stores are non-existent. State Health Protection Director Lawrence Crist cites "push packs," government-owned pharmaceutical caches, as the primary Ciprofloxacin source for Vermonters. "Push packs are no more than 12 hours away."

Crist says, "They are part of a national pharmaceutics stockpile system that is currently providing drugs for the Washington and New York areas." Crist did not elaborate on the dissemination methods.

In addition, Vermont participates in an international cooperative designed to care for patients should any one state or national health care system find itself overwhelmed. According to Crist, "the Vermont State Health Department has agreements with abutting Canadian provinces and surrounding states that prescribe a sort of patient sharing should a major catastrophe befall the region."

One such incident involves radioactive material. Since it began regular operation in 1978, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has demanded disaster consideration. Current state guidelines focus on a fixed contamination area, in essence a meltdown or similar radioactive discharge associated with Vermont Yankee. The Vermont Emergency Management Agency would coordinate decontamination efforts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hospitals and local fire departments. Neither Middlebury's fire department nor Porter Hospital is presently equipped to participate in the processes. State Health Department evaluations estimate fixed-position contamination cleanup times in months.

Crist cites an ongoing revision process necessary to maintain currency. "A nuclear, biological and chemical annex is in its fourth draft today and will hopefully be completed by next week." This addition to established procedures addresses possible widespread contamination akin to mail-borne anthrax. Hanley and Crist both deem such a mode more likely than a nuclear bomb blast due to the ease relative in acquiring anthrax.

Other than anthrax, smallpox is a possible infectious agent terrorists may employ. Unlike anthrax, smallpox is a viral infection against which immunization is possible. Until 1972, each vaccination battery administered to newborn children included a smallpox inoculation. Since then, world health organizations instituted a moratorium, weighing the disease's virtual eradication against uncertain side-effects associated with even an immunization injection.

When asked about precautionary measures Middlebury might take in relation to smallpox, Hanley said that the town would take cues from the Center for Disease Control and State Health Departments as necessary. Information regarding the state-held percentage of 15 million smallpox vaccine units in existence nationally was unavailable.