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Ready for disaster

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jacob Meurer’s job Wednesday was to hand out antibiotics to the public during a simulated anthrax attack, but all was not going well.

A young woman who approached his table couldn’t provide the University of New Mexico nursing student with any meaningful information, including her name.

“It says here you have a seizure disorder,” Meurer, 23, said after taking a form from the woman’s hand. “Have you taken any medications lately? Do you have a caregiver?”

Meurer finally handed off the unresponsive woman to security personnel at UNM’s Johnson Center, where emergency management officials staged the simulation.

“It’s nice to see that they’ve thrown in all these hiccups that create a good learning environment,” said Meurer, who was one of some 300 volunteers who participated in the daylong drill.

According to the scenario, an attacker had released weaponized anthrax in a southbound Railrunner Express train late Monday.

Meurer and other “players” were told early Wednesday of the nature of the attack, which could have included any number of bioterrorism agents, including smallpox, botulism and plague. Participants tested a system for dispensing medications to the public.

Anthrax is not contagious, but people carrying anthrax spores can expose others to the bacteria, said Byron Piatt, UNM’s emergency manager. Mortality can be as high as 95 percent for people who ingest spores of weaponized anthrax, he said.

The drill envisioned providing a 10-day supply of antibiotics to hospital employees, police, first responders and UNM campus residents, Piatt said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires annual drills under a public health emergency preparedness grant managed since 2002 by the New Mexico Department of Health.

“We do this both to improve our planning and readiness based on the exercise outcomes,” said Chris Emory, health emergency management bureau chief for the state Department of Health.

In the event of a real emergency, the state would obtain medications from the CDC’s “strategic national stockpile,” which includes antibiotics, vaccines, antivirals, antitoxins and life-support medications, Emory said. The medications can be deployed to a local area within 12 hours from regional depositories, he said.

“If we find there are some gaps during the exercise, we can go back to the drawing board essentially and improve that plan,” he said.

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