Mock botulism outbreak hones disaster response

Doctors, police, dispatchers and reporters participate.
Friday, December 5, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:15 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

If Thursday’s events had been real, more than 60 Columbians might have been infected with botulism, kept alive by beeping, whizzing ventilators because their bodies did not remember how to breathe.

The FBI would have been on their way. Cars would have clogged roads near local hospitals. The national media would have descended on Columbia in hordes while city officials tried desperately to squelch rumors before the city erupted in panic.

But it was just a drill, orchestrated by Columbia and Boone County emergency services agencies to help prepare for potential disasters. Dozens of people participated in the simulation, which began Thursday morning and ended in the early afternoon. They included dispatchers, doctors, public information officers, health officials, volunteers and news reporters, all of whom were instructed to pretend the bacteria outbreak was real.

Jim McNabb, director of the Columbia/Boone County Office of Emergency Management, coordinated the event, which began with an unconfirmed report of botulism at a Columbia high school’s class reunion. More than 60 people supposedly were infected by the food-borne bacteria, which somehow poisoned the catered picnic food served at the reunion.

As events unfolded, police department officials were mum on rumors of terrorism. Doctors from all four area hospitals scrambled to identify the type of bacteria through simulated medical records compiled for the supposed victims. And public information officers mined sources to answer questions from a pack of reporters who were dogged and short-tempered.

For example, public information officers did not know immediately which high school reunion was the source of the outbreak. Reporters subsequently peppered them with a volley of skeptical questions, wondering how they possibly couldn’t know which reunion it was. Officials eventually confirmed that the reunion was for Rock Bridge High School, class of ‘84.

In the end, the story peaked like a Tom Clancy cliffhanger: MU researchers confirmed that at least 17 people were infected with botulism; apparently the outbreak resulted in no deaths; and, if terrorists were involved, they were still at large.

“Just about everything went well,” McNabb said. “People were confused initially ... but everyone eventually pulled together.”

McNabb said the exercise was designed to make sure communication between harried city officials and the public doesn’t fizzle during grave emergencies.

The biohazard-response drill was supposed to seem as real as possible, McNabb said, so officials could figure out exactly what to do during real emergency situations. Many of the parties involved will meet soon to discuss how it turned out, but McNabb already deemed it a success.

“Everyone stepped up to the plate, and they hit a home run,” McNabb said.

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