(Nov. 1, 2001)
Since Sept. 11, many people have wondered how prepared their communities are should terrorists strike with biological, chemical or radioactive agents. At Pitt County Memorial Hospital and the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, officials say they're practiced and ready.
For the past couple of years, PCMH and Brody School of Medicine officials have participated on national panels studying ways to prepare for natural disasters and terrorism. One important piece of information from that participation was the need to closely monitor patients who come to the hospital during times of possible biological or chemical terrorism to determine if any of them show signs or symptoms of anthrax, neurotoxin poisoning or other terrorist agents.
"We implemented a surveillance plan of all patients in the emergency department on September 11," said Deborah Davis, PCMH senior vice president. "We'll continue to do that as along as we're on heightened alerts."
Davis said experience gained not only during Hurricane Floyd but also from events such as the tornadoes of 1984, the explosion at Coastal Chemical Co. in 1979 and other events shows that PCMH and the Brody School of Medicine are schooled in managing disasters. In addition, because of the region's relatively high numbers of patients with tuberculosis, the hospital has 60 isolation rooms and protective equipment for staff to treat patients in those rooms should a highly infectious or dangerous agent be used in a terrorist attack.
Also, since the hospital has been involved with nuclear medicine for years, and PCMH and the medical school have radiation safety officers, Davis said she's comfortable that both institutions are prepared in case of radiation terrorism, such as radioactive agents being dispersed over the city or through the ventilation system of a crowded building.
The sheer number of victims that could result from such a terrorist attack, however, could overwhelm the ability of the hospital and medical school to treat all those affected. Likewise, people who fear they are a victim but aren't could also strain the system.
"That's the biggest thing when you have something like this: the worried well," said Sharon Bradley, PCMH vice president for quality. "We have a care plan for everybody." PCMH is also part of the National Disaster Medical System, a federally coordinated system that increases the nation's emergency medical response capability. The overall purpose of the NDMS is to establish a single, integrated national medical response capability for helping state and local authorities deal with the medical and health effects of major peacetime disasters.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sends out regular faxes of the latest information regarding anthrax and other biological and chemical terror agents. Also, ECU has two toxicologists in its Department of Emergency Medicine and last month hosted a well-attended grand rounds lecture titled, "Toxic Terrorism." "I'd say we're as ready as any other emergency department in the country," Dr. Herbert Garrison, ECU professor of emergency medicine and chief of the medical staff at PCMH, said at the Oct. 16 meeting of the PCMH board of trustees.
PCMH and the medical school are also taking measures to deal with suspicious mail packages or substances. Dr. Peter Kragel, interim dean of the Brody School of Medicine, and Preston Comeaux, PCMH vice president of support services, said if any suspicious substance is found at the medical school or at the hospital, they will follow CDC guidelines and send the material to a state laboratory for analysis. That process got tested Oct. 18 at the medical school when a white, powdery material was found in a bathroom in the William E. Laupus Health Sciences Library. A similar substance was found at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.