JEROME — Teenagers and adults lined up in the Jerome High School gym, ready to receive medication, while police stood guard outside.
The exercise was part of a four-day simulation, organized by the South Central Public Health District and Jerome County Office of Emergency Management, to prepare for a potential anthrax or other bioterrorism attack. The exercise coincided with similar exercises in Idaho’s six other public health districts.
The South Central Public Health District holds large-scale simulations every few years, district director Melody Bowyer said, and smaller exercises annually.
“One of our very important missions for public health is to protect and prepare the community for a real health threat,” such as a disease outbreak, natural disaster or bioterrorism attack, Bowyer said.
“We aren’t immune to disasters,” said Jerome County Emergency Manager Tanya Stitt in a statement. “Hopefully we never have to use this particular training in real life, but we aren’t going to cross our fingers and wait to see.”
While volunteers trickled into the gym to provide workers with their personal information, get vetted by nurses and receive fake medicine, law enforcement stood guard outside, ready to quell a potential riot.
The exercise was quiet and orderly on April 24 — but in the event of a real bioterrorism attack, the atmosphere would likely be more chaotic, Bowyer noted. There were roughly 100 volunteers participating in this week’s exercise; if a bioterrorism attack were to take place in Jerome County, there could be as many as 24,000 people who need medication within 48 hours.
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“It’s a lot calmer than real life,” Bowyer said.
Volunteers included folks from the Medical Reserve Corps, the College of Southern Idaho nursing school and Jerome High School.
Exercises earlier in the week included a simulation of getting the word out about the attack via Facebook and other media platforms. Volunteer actors participated in that simulation too, spreading rumors and making demands through social media. The district also set up a call center to take panicked attacks from the public.
“We tried to make this as real as possible,” Bowyer said.
While not all public health districts partner with county officials and law enforcement for such drills, the Jerome County Office of Emergency Management helped organize the exercises this week and local law enforcement from Jerome and Twin Falls, as well as Jerome County commissioners, participated.
Other partners included the Regional Behavioral Health Strike Team, Magic Valley Paramedics, St. Luke’s Magic Valley and Jerome hospitals, North Canyon Medical Center, and Bennett Hills Center in Gooding.
“I think it’s going really smoothly,” Bowyer said. “Everybody seemed to know their role really well and working together. I think what it shows is we can handle much higher volume than what we’re processing right now.”