Immunization drill to practice preparation for emergency
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Immunization drill to practice preparation for emergency

Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW | August 3, 2005
By Jennifer Bails

The elderly waiting in line for a pneumonia vaccination at a South Side community center sipped lukewarm coffee and chatted with friends.

About 80 people received shots of Pneumovax in two hours Tuesday morning at the South Side Senior Center in a mass immunization drill that ambled along at a leisurely pace.

But in the event of an avian flu pandemic or bioterror attack involving smallpox or anthrax, health workers must be ready to kick it up a few notches and immunize more than 8,000 people an hour, said Daniel Swayze, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's prehospital care program.

"Our goal is to figure out how to be better prepared for an emergency," said Swayze, an organizer of yesterday's drill to test how quickly nurses and doctors could respond to a large-scale health crisis.

Paramedics -- who might be the first on scene and most readily available in disasters in outlying areas such as those affected in the 2003 Hepatitis A outbreak in Beaver County -- were enlisted to deliver the vaccine, Swayze said.

Paid for by a grant from the Emergency Medical Service Institute, the event was coordinated by UPMC's prehospital care program, Pittsburgh EMS and the city's Department of Parks and Recreation.

First came the mock release of a biological weapon and rapid training and deployment of paramedics and other health workers. Then nearly 200 seniors received real pneumonia shots at senior community centers in Brighton Heights, Sheraden, Homewood and the South Side.

Holding temporary clinics like this at dispersed locations could limit the spread of disease and help to prevent a secondary terrorist attack at a central location where large numbers of people gather to seek medical care, Swayze said.

In assembly-line fashion, the drill participants registered with health workers, stuck out their arms for shots from paramedics and then circled back to a "holding table" for about 20 minutes to make sure they didn't experience any side effects.

"It's getting a two-for-one deal," said Pittsburgh EMS crew chief Mark Pinchalk. "We're undertaking an important public health initiative, and hopefully, we won't be picking up these people for pneumonia this winter."

Many seniors saw the demonstration project as a way to socialize and get vaccinated for free against pneumococcal disease, which is recommended for people 65 and older and those with heart or lung disease or other chronic health problems. Usually just one dose is needed.

"I'm just glad to be back here, even if it means a shot," said Irene Phillips, 82, of Oakland, who visits the center twice a week, but has been out sick recently.

Friends Mary Ann Halligan, 65, and Barbara Denillo, 64, both of the South Side Slopes, stopped in for immunization before heading out to breakfast.

"I've never had the shot before, but I wanted to come because it seems like a lot of people have been getting sick lately from pneumonia," Denillo said.

Biological terror experts observed yesterday's drills and will pool their observations from all four sites to find ways to make the system work better in case of an emergency.

Results will be compiled in a published report, and a larger drill might be staged in the future, Swayze said.

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