Preparing for an emergency

HANCOCK – When officials with the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department began its mass flu clinic eight years ago, it wasn’t so much to give out vaccine, but rather an exercise to evaluate the department’s employees’ ability to distribute medicine on a large scale in a timely manner during an emergency.

Pete Baril, WUPHD Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, said this year the flu clinic, which is just one part of what the health department does for emergency preparedness, will be from 9 to 11 a.m. Sept. 28 at the Hancock Central High School gymnasium.

“That’s a big part of what we do,” Baril said of the flu clinics, which take place, also, from 9 to 11 a.m. on Oct. 5 at Baraga County Memorial Hospital, Sept. 21 at Gogebic Community College, and on Oct. 12 at Ontonagon schools.

The flu clinics are an analog of what the health department, hospitals and emergency transportation companies may have to deal with in the event of an outbreak of disease or other medical emergency, and how quickly medicine could be distributed on a mass scale, Baril said.

“It’s an exercise in bringing all those partners together,” he said.

There is a federal program called the Strategic National Stockpile Program, in which the health department participates, Baril said. The federal government has stockpiles of medicines, antibiotics and vaccines in various locations around the United States. If any of those are ever needed on a mass scale, he would contact the federal government to let officials there know what is needed locally.

“Within 12 to 24 hours, it’s supposed to be on my doorstep,” he said.

The health department has a general emergency preparedness plan, and Baril said the plan includes outages of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge. Also involved in planning for an outage of the bridge are the Houghton and Keweenaw County Emergency Measures Coordinator, local hospitals and local emergency transportation providers.

Although unlikely, Baril said it could be possible there would be a medical emergency at the same time the bridge goes out, and the health department would be involved with helping to distribute needed medicines on both sides of the bridge.

“The combination of the two would be interesting,” he said. “(Planning for) that’s something we’ve had for years.”

Also part of the health department’s emergency preparedness planning is for large scale sudden emergencies, such as large plane crashes or big fires. In such a situation, the health department would establish a telephone hotline to let people, especially family members of possible victims, know exactly what is happening.

“We could help reunite families,” he said.

One of the more unpleasant things the health department would be involved with in case of a large-scale emergency, such as a plane crash or large fire, would be dealing with mass fatalities, Baril said. That would involve working with a medical examiner and local hospitals. They would also help create a family assistance center.

The health department will get involved, also, with environmental disasters, such as mercury spills or water contamination, Baril said. In case of floods, property owners will be able to get information about cleaning up after floods for both contaminants and mold. The health department will help with determining if there is any contamination of water wells, and tell owners how to clean up that problem, also.

In case of power outages, Baril said whether the health department gets involved will be determined by the length of the outage. Up to four hours, there will be no health department involvement. From four to eight hours, the health department’s involvement begins.

“The plan starts to ramp up,” he said.

Health department staff will start to make telephone calls to restaurants at the four to eight hour mark to make certain employees are properly protecting food needing refrigeration.

The health department’s involvement during a power outage becomes more intense if the outage lasts more than eight hours, Baril said.

“There’s different activities based on the length of the outage,” he said.

There is a lot of effort regarding emergency preparedness by health department employees which happens behind the scenes, Baril said.

“It’s pretty much invisible to the public,” he said.