SALEM, Ore. - An upcoming Oregon Health Authority-sponsored statewide disaster exercise will train staff and partners on responding to an intentional release of plague.
The focus of the exercise is on quickly getting antibiotics into communities to treat people and prevent the disease’s spread.
Operation OX ("Oregon Exercise") is coordinated by the Health Security, Preparedness and Response Section (HSPR) at the OHA Public Health Division. It will run from April 30 to May 2.
The exercise will simulate a response to the release of plague, and how medications and medical supplies—known as "medical countermeasures"—are requested, received, distributed and dispensed from the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS).
"Public health crisis exercises such as Operation OX train and keep the skills of our staff and partners fresh," said Akiko Saito, HSPR manager and director of emergency operations. "We need to be ready to keep people in Oregon healthy through a coordinated response."
Saito added that while the potential for Operation OX’s scenario is real, the likelihood is low. "It’s also important for people to remember that this is only an exercise. There’s no need to call 911 for exercise-related activities in your area."
The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services operates the SNS. It is the nation’s largest supply of potentially life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.
HSPR will staff an agency operations center (AOC) to coordinate the response to the exercise scenario. HSPR staff will also establish a receipt, stage and store (RSS) site to receive what’s known as the federal Eagle Pack. The pack consists of 20 to 30 pallets of training medication.
Staff and volunteers deployed to the RSS will receive the Eagle Pack, select and pack supplies from the pallets, and ship them to a group of counties and tribes. AOC staff will coordinate the supplies’ distribution, ensuring they are tracked and dispensed appropriately.
The volunteers are from the state's registry of health professionals available in an emergency, known as SERV-OR.
The SNS may use the federal Shelf Life Extension Program to help maintain its supply. The program allows the expiration date on medications to be extended after they are tested for safety and effectiveness.
Products that pass are relabeled with a new expiration date and passed on to agencies receiving SNS. Labels can be in writing, print, or graphic formats, and may be on the packaging or come separately.
"The Shelf Life Extension Program isn’t something most people know about. When people don’t understand the process behind the relabeling, it can cause confusion and misinformation," said Saito. "It can slow a life-saving response."
All Oregon counties and tribes will participate in the distribution portion of the exercise. Some will conduct additional testing and training activities, such as: disease and outbreak investigation; hospital capacity management; emergency operations center administration; pharmacy collaboration; medical volunteer management; dispensing; local distribution site warehouse operations; emergency public information and warning; and information sharing.
Plague, a bacterial disease infamous for killing millions of people in Europe during the Middle Ages, is now treatable with modern antibiotics. However, the disease can cause serious illness or death without prompt treatment.
Humans usually get plague after being bitten by a rodent flea carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with plague. Human plague infections still occur in the western United States. Between 2009 and 2017, there were seven cases of plague in Oregon. About seven human plague cases occur each year in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
There are three types of plague—bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic. The names indicate how the disease affects the body. Each is caused by the same bacterium. More than 80 percent of U.S. plague cases are the bubonic form.
For more information about the exercise, visit http://healthoregon.org/disasterexercise.