Emergency group tackles mock disease outbreak in drill

MARSHALL – Being prepared for a medical emergency isn’t just a job for area health care providers. In an event like a deadly outbreak of disease, many more groups, from law enforcement to funeral directors and the media, would all have parts to play.

That idea was the idea behind tabletop exercises that area responders took part in on Wednesday afternoon. Lyon County emergency responders, hospital representatives, public safety officers and others helped form a response plan for a “mass fatality” disaster – in this case, a hypothetical outbreak of plague.

It might have seemed a little extreme, but Jason Kloss, environmental health manager for Southwest Health and Human Services, said the exercises were a way for emergency managers “to find out what the capacities are” in their response systems.

Lyon County Emergency Manager Tammy VanOverbeke said the exercise would also help in shaping the county’s own mass fatality response plan.

Lyon County was one of six counties in southwest Minnesota taking part in the mass fatality exercise by teleconference. Coordinators from the Southwest Emergency Preparedness Team would give participants “updates” on the spread of the disease and the number of people hospitalized or dead in their county, as well as other hypothetical scenarios like drug and medical staff shortages. Exercise participants would then form response plans for the situation as it unfolded.

Participants were urged to be “as realistic as possible” about their counties’ ability to respond.

Lyon County participants were faced with many urgent questions during the exercise. For example, how soon should county emergency responders establish a base of operations? How could they get needed medicine and supplies to hospitals in Marshall and Tracy? How should they respond to the media or to worried members of the public?

Security at area hospitals and clinics would be a key concern during a fatal outbreak, said Minneota Police Chief Eric Johnson. People would tend to congregate at their local hospital, or overwhelm phone lines with questions, medical responders agreed.

“Chances are, it would be triage in the parking lot,” said Charlie Snyder of the Tracy Ambulance Service.

In the case of a deadly outbreak, it could also be a challenge to store the bodies of disease victims. Funeral director Quinn Horvath said area funeral homes could help, but they’d have limited space. They would also be subject to direction from the Minnesota Department of Health on how to handle the bodies, he said.

As the imaginary casualties began to increase to more than 50, and participants received requests for relief nurses at hospitals and nursing homes, the Lyon County group members said they would declare a county-wide state of emergency. They said they’d also request the National Guard be mobilized to help with security and logistics.

Some participants in Wednesday’s exercise said it would help them refine their own emergency plans. Cheryl Verschelde, who helped represent Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center during the exercise, said the hospital does have disaster plans in place. However, the exercises provided some ideas to make them more specific.

“It might help to have some of that detail,” Verschelde said. Working together with other groups of responders was also helpful. “It was nice to see all the people at the table.”