Wilford Hall readies for possible pandemic flu outbreak

Laboratory technician Airman 1st Class John Marrs, 59th Laboratory Squadron, checks a specimen to determine if it is a strain of flu or another virus during a Texas Department of Health Services Pandemic flu exercise held August 13-16.   (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt Kimberly A. Yearyean-Siers)

Laboratory technician Airman 1st Class John Marrs, 59th Laboratory Squadron, checks a specimen to determine if it is a strain of flu or another virus during a Texas Department of Health Services Pandemic flu exercise held August 13-16. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt Kimberly A. Yearyean-Siers)

Jesse Salinas, medical technologist with the 59th Laboratory Squadron, extracts DNA from a sample to help determine what strain of flu it is during a Texas Department of Health Services Pandemic flu exercise held August 13-16.   (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt Kimberly A. Yearyean-Siers)

Jesse Salinas, medical technologist with the 59th Laboratory Squadron, extracts DNA from a sample to help determine what strain of flu it is during a Texas Department of Health Services Pandemic flu exercise held August 13-16. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt Kimberly A. Yearyean-Siers)

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- The Air Force is ready to exercise its muscle in the event of a possible pandemic flu outbreak.

Members of the 59th Medical Wing's disaster preparedness teams participated in a pandemic flu exercise Aug. 13 - 16, involving 27 South Central Texas counties, local, state, and federal crisis response agencies.

"This exercise scenario was the first of its kind for Wilford Hall personnel," said Master Sgt. Kyndra Shea, 59th MDW exercise evaluation team superintendent.

"We've been working with the Texas Department of Health Services and regional agencies since 2005 to proactively plan for possible pandemic flu outbreaks, but this year we took action on the plan and implemented a scenario based on a possible 'real time' crisis."

Unlike hurricanes that strike in one place, when a pandemic influenza virus emerges, it continues to spread from person to person worldwide very quickly. If communities are not prepared, the outbreak could be deadly.

"We're practicing our response for something that hasn't happened and making sure we are prepared in the event of such a crisis," Sergeant Shea added.

Sergeant Shea said with the growing number of "bird flu" cases in humans reported in Asia, Europe and Africa, health professionals are concerned about pandemic preparedness at every level nationwide.

About a year and a half ago, President Bush mobilized the nation to prepare for a global disease outbreak. Since then, the federal government has made great progress in building up the nation's defenses and planning for the future.

"This was a large-scale exercise for South Texas counties and included hospitals, public health officials, education services and other federal, state and local agencies that met to share information and contribute to the team effort," explained Lt. Col. Gregory Stewart, exercise evaluation team chief.

The exercise was "important to work on communication and resource sharing of all the agencies involved," added Colonel Stewart.

Sergeant Shea explained the exercise scenario began with reported cases of the virus in Africa and Asia with confirmed human-to-human transmission. Within two months, the number of confirmed human cases put these countries at pandemic levels. The scenario continued with "seasonal flu" beginning to occur in Texas. Area hospitals began to see record numbers of patients with influenza-like illness. From there, the scenario developed into pandemic levels throughout the U.S.

"Our role at Wilford Hall is to take care of our military personnel and their families first," said Sergeant Shea.

"If called upon by the federal or state government, we will stand prepared to handle any crisis," she said.

Sergeant Shea explained that if the exercise had evolved on a larger scale at Wilford Hall, Lackland Air Force base could have been closed, separating military families. Also, food deliveries to the base would have come to a halt due to the increased spread of the virus, leading to a shortage of food in the hospital and on base.

With the high number of civilian employees on staff, there would have been a breakdown of personnel, leading to a shortage of manpower, Sergeant Shea added.

"In this type of scenario, our medics act as first responders. They would have been given a preventive medication as there is no vaccine for bird flu, which leads us to the issue of people hoarding the medication, stealing it, and security problems," she said.

"The exercise went very well," said Colonel Stewart. "Of course, we are always working to improve upon our situational awareness and overall communication."

"A pandemic flu type situation will cross all boundaries--local, state and national," said Colonel Stewart. "We need to always be prepared to communicate and share information across all those lines."

"I love this job," said Sergeant Shea, a nearly 17-year veteran of the Air Force. "You can help a lot of people and save a lot of lives if you just think ahead and plan for the future."

 
 
  
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