BioWarfare Drill At
McAlester, OK...Who Knew?

By James Beaty, Senior Editor
McAlester News-Capital & Democrat

When McAlester resident Carolyn King strode into the Pittsburg County Health Department on Saturday morning, her thoughts returned to childhood.
But she didn't think about playing with dolls or swinging from a tree.
Instead, she recalled huddling under her desk at elementary school - another little girl trying to hide from a future enemy who might someday rain death from the skies.
"I was raised in the San Francisco Bay area right after World War II," King said. "We had air raid drills."
If an air raid ever became a reality, authorities were prepared to identify bombing victims pulled from the school's rubble.
"We wore dog tags," King said. "We wore them to school every day."
That's why King took the Sooner Spring bioterrorism exercise in McAlester on Friday and Saturday seriously.
"I was raised on air raid drills," she said. "I think our children should be trained."
King and thousands of other area residents who also took the Sooner Spring bioterrorism drill in McAlester seriously helped make it a success in the eyes of officials who planned it.
It exceeded their most optimistic expectations.
By the time the exercise ended at 2 p.m. Saturday, some 13,635 doses of "antibiotics" in the form of jelly beans and pediatric fruit drinks had been distributed.
"Without a doubt, today McAlester set the pace for the rest of the nation," said Pittsburg County Medical Director Dr. Timothy Cathey.
Sooner Spring had been planned to test how well local emergency and health personnel could react to a bioterrorism attack of the pneumonic plague.
The two-day drill kicked off around noon Friday when a vintage 1942 C-47 transport plane flew over the city of McAlester and the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
While flying, the plane simulated spraying an aerosol mist containing the pneumonic plague.
McAlester-area residents participated in the Sooner Spring exercise in such large numbers that the goal of distributing 10,000 doses of mock antibiotics had been surpassed by 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Although the exercise had been set to continue until 4 p.m., concerns about lightning associated with a storm front pushing through the area prompted officials to end it two hours early.
Those involved praised the spirit of McAlester-area residents. Before the exercise began, there had been no way to predict how many people would show up to participate. Those planning the event counted on the patriotism of people in the McAlester area.
They weren't disappointed.
"I'm not surprised by the people of McAlester," Cathey said.
Even before warning sirens sounded Saturday morning, area residents were lining up at distribution sites, including the Wal-Mart Supercenter, the Pittsburg County Health Department, the Warren Clinic and the Pittsburg County Fairgrounds.
Distribution sites were also set up in Krebs, Crowder and Kiowa. McAAP handled its own distribution.
In addition to those who participated by going to distribution centers, numerous individuals helped in other ways.
"There were 16 different groups and about 700 volunteers," Cathey said of those who participated.
McAlester's exercise had a featured spot Saturday on ABC World News Tonight. Numerous state media descended on the city for the drill.
The exercise in McAlester and at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant has been called the most extensive bioterrorism drill in U.S. history. Officials said McAlester is leading the nation on how to respond to such an attack.
"They will look to McAlester as a model for the way to do things right," Cathey said
That's not simply Cathey's opinion. Among those who traveled to McAlester to observe the exercise was U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jim Sahli, of Fort Monroe, Va.
"I work for the Joint Task Force for Civil Support," Sahli said. "If it exceeded the local and state facilities, they would call us here. About a half-dozen of us came down to watch.
"Just seeing it in action ... being in the field like this, gives us a good feel."
Sahli watched in the McAlester Regional Health Center, where hospital personnel set up a triage to treat volunteer "victims" of the pneumonic plague.
Ambulances and buses had unloaded groups of volunteers who were serving as victims to be treated at the hospital. They were carried inside the hospital on gurneys and whisked inside on wheel chairs.
Kaydee Langley lay on a stretcher as Bob Anderson asked her about her illness, surrounded by dozens of other "victims."
With a small army of doctors and nurses called to the hospital for the drill, physicians such as Dr. Dwain Doyle moved from patient to patient, checking symptoms of "victims" such as Boy Scout Daniel Langley.
Scoutmaster Chris Taylor said the scouts had been on a mock camp-out when hit by the "plague."
At the hospital, patients were tagged with color-coded tags according to the severity of their "illness." Seventy-seven patients were treated in the hour-and-a-half that the hospital drill remained under way.
"I think it went pretty good," Dr. Doyle said afterwards. "There were a lot of people coming through. We had a lot of people here, nurses, staff, clerical people and doctors."
Outside the hospital, McAlester Fire Marshal Harold Stewart had watched as the patients were wheeled and carried into the triage area.
"This has surpassed all expectations and a lot of it's due to the participation of the public," Stewart said.
Steve Hazlewood with the U.S. Public Health service manned a desk at the Health Department, with Sonja Haynie and Nita Cable, administering jelly beans in place of doxycycline and Cipro.
"We've been very busy," he said.
Pittsburg County Dep. Joe Kerns said people had started lining up outside the health department around 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
At the Krebs School, Registered Nurse Maye Durant said 360 doses had been handed out by noon. When the medication ran out, people were given index cards with the names of the appropriate medications on them.
"This gives us a chance to articulate our skills," Durant said. She called the exercise a way to educate the public as well as a way for health officials to articulate their skills.
Outside, Krebs Emergency Management Director Peter Prichard said "Everybody did a good job."
Pittsburg County Health Department Director Mike Echelle had a busy day, checking on the various distribution sites.
Inside the Emergency Operations Center in the Pittsburg County Office of Emergency Management, EM Director Billy Mellor and representatives from the agencies involved coordinated activities.
At the Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot, Dr. Larry Lewis and Dr. Belinda Savage-Edwards joined other volunteers at the drive-through distribution points, while cars moved smoothly through lanes to pick up antibiotics.
"I think it's pretty amazing," Smith said. "All the planning and coordination looks like it's paying off.
"If this had happened a year ago, before Sept. 11, there might not have been as much participation," Smith said. "Now, everybody takes it seriously."
Savage-Edwards said the participation has been wonderful.
At the Warren Clinic, Billie Cathey, director of the Southeastern Oklahoma Chapter of the American Red Cross, said some of the food that had been prepared had ran out. The Red Cross had provided 500 meals for volunteers and provided snacks to anyone who asked.
Also at the Warren Clinic, Carol Maxwell and Holly Cathey said 345 adult doses and 87 pediatric doses had been distributed by 11:50 a.m. Saturday.
On Saturday night, Dr. Cathey prepared to answer another media call. He had been invited by the BBC in England to be a guest on a morning radio show to discuss the bioterrorism drill in McAlester.
"When the British people show an interest in the activities of people in McAlester, Oklahoma, certainly the importance of what happened today far exceeds the boundaries of the U.S," he said.
©McAlester News-Capital & Democrat 2002

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