On the day the U.S. Congress announced that the country could face a nuclear or biological attack in the next five years, volunteers with the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department tested their ability to dispense anthrax medication for the first time.
"We didn't know anything about the report," said Joan Carr, public information officer for the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department. "I saw it the newspaper like [everybody else] did."
Chalk it up to good timing. Under Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regulations, the department was required to complete the drill by year's end. The local health department has been designated by the CDC to distribute antibiotics to 1.3 million people in the Memphis metro area — including nearby counties in Arkansas and Mississippi — within 48 hours of an actual emergency.
On a recent Tuesday morning, 282 volunteers acting as people exposed to anthrax lined up for medication at the Hickory Hill Community Center. Some were students from Arlington High School and others were adult volunteers from across the city.
The "patients" filled out detailed medical history forms. Some were asked to create fake medical conditions to give volunteers experience in dealing with special circumstances.
Trained staff, like Dr. David Weitzman of the Medical Reserve Corps, evaluated the medical forms.
"My job is to direct people who have medical conditions that might interfere with the drug [used to treat anthrax]," Weitzman said.
After each patient's medication and dosage were determined, volunteers gave them baggies filled with Skittles, Starburst, or M&Ms in place of Doxycycline, Ciprofloxacin, and Amoxicillin — the drugs used to treat anthrax.
Some patients, however, would have had trouble in a real emergency. Patty Rucker, a registered nurse who volunteered as a patient, was given the right medication but the wrong instructions.
"They gave me four Starburst with instructions to take one a day, and it's supposed to say one every four hours, because I'm on Theophylline for my breathing," Rucker said. "That could cause my kidneys to shut down."
Kasia Smith-Alexander, regional hospital coordinator for the health department, said the department did not have a label maker onsite and that the instructions were printed beforehand.
"In real life, we'd have a label maker," Smith-Alexander said. "That's why this exercise is useful — to see what works and what doesn't work."
The drill was also meant to test how long it takes the health department to set up a facility to dispense antibiotics in an emergency. The drill was set to begin at 9 a.m., but it began half an hour late.
Though the department had enough volunteers for the drill, they said many more would be needed in the case of an actual anthrax outbreak.
"Anthrax is the primary weapon of terrorists because it's easy to grow and dispense," Weitzman said. "You can spread it around with a leaf blower."