DHSS tests Alaska’s public health response systems through a mock epidemic exercise
Alaska’s emergency response systems were tested in a very real way by the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that shook Southcentral Alaska this past Nov. 30, followed by thousands of aftershocks. Just a few months later, in April, DHSS executed a public health exercise that had been planned long before the earthquake hit. There’s nothing quite like a real emergency, followed by a planned exercise, to test systems and identify areas that need strengthening.
“It’s been a very busy winter and spring,” said Sondra LeClair, the emergency preparedness and response manager for DHSS. “But we’ve learned a great deal that helps us strengthen and fine-tune our response for the next real emergency. It’s important for the public to know that the state has a plan for medical emergencies – and regularly practices that response.”
The public health exercise, named Ragin' Contagion, was planned and executed by the Division of Public Health’s Health Emergency Response Operations as part of Alaska Shield, a larger statewide training event led by the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The goal is to ensure Alaska is ready to respond to a bioterrorism event or another pandemic like the Spanish flu that devastated Alaska communities 100 years ago. The statewide exercise also used the skills of Public Health Nursing, Epidemiology, and the Public Health Laboratories to support the many facets of managing the mock epidemic effectively.
Ragin’ Contagion was one of the larger, more complex public health exercises coordinated by DHSS in recent years and involved more than two dozen communities including Anchorage, Bethel, Cordova, Dillingham, Fairbanks, Kodiak, Kotzebue, Manokotak, Napaskiak, Nunapitchuk, New Stuyahok, Nome, Noorvik, Ouzinkie, Prince of Wales (Craig, Hollis, Organized Village of Kasaan, Klawock, Naukati, Whale Pass), Shaktoolik, Togiak, Tok, Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, Utqiagvik, Valdez and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
DHSS coordinated with these communities to test local and statewide capabilities to provide medical and emergency response services and public information to a large number of people throughout the state. The efforts focused on the transportation and dispensing of mock medication, known as countermeasures, to counteract a mock epidemic of pneumonic plague.
The exercise’s stated goal was to receive antibiotics from the national stockpile in the Lower 48 within 12 hours of the request, and then to distribute the medication from Anchorage to Alaska communities as quickly as possible, ideally within the next 24 hours. By and large, those goals were met across the state, with a few exceptions due to adverse weather.
This involved transporting the countermeasures over 4,000 miles in total, just within Alaska, and coordinating with the communities to set up mock point-of-dispensing clinics, known as PODs, where residents would be able to come and receive the medication. Public information capabilities were also tested as part of the exercise.
Some of the antibiotics were shipped on real flights in real time, to mimic real-life conditions as much as possible. When weather delays occurred, residents in the affected communities were instructed as part of the exercise to use existing stockpiles of antibiotics to treat those in the greatest need, which would have been anyone in contact with known or suspected mock pneumonic plague patients.
During the exercise, the State of Alaska convened a Unified Command to coordinate emergency response efforts between the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management State Emergency Operations Center, the DHSS Emergency Operations Center and federal partners.
“Just as in a real event… it would involve local emergency management, public health, medical centers and the state. It would involve our federal partners. And so all of those entities are also involved in this exercise," LeClair told KTVA, which ran a story about the event. “We are grateful that so many communities took the time to participate and test their response. Collectively, our response was strong and we also know what we need to improve for next time.”
Learn more: RaginContagion.alaska.dhss.gov
To read media coverage about the exercise:
Click here for event photos