CDC Practices for the 'Big One'

The Associated Press
Thursday, February 1, 2007; 8:31 PM

ATLANTA -- This was the Big One, a deadly flu epidemic. But fortunately it was a fake. So when U.S. health officials made some missteps in their largest-ever drill to prepare for a national outbreak of a deadly new flu, no one died.

Some information was wrong because people misstated facts as they passed them on _ like a game of telephone gone slightly awry. Some information was classified, so some key public health experts didn't have all the facts.

And there was an ice storm _ for real _ that hit the Atlanta area and caused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to stop the exercise early so employees wouldn't be caught in the weather.

Disaster planning has become a common concept in government, but it's relatively new at the CDC. "We haven't had a tradition in public health" of doing such drills, said Glen Nowak, a CDC spokesman.

The drill involved close to 300 CDC employees and was designed to run over a 24-hour period, from Wednesday to Thursday. Most of the action was at CDC's emergency operations center _ the agency's equivalent to NASA's Mission Control in Houston.

An Associated Press reporter and three other journalists were allowed to observe _ an unusual step for the CDC, but an effort to better work with the media and improve communication should a real pandemic occur.

The drill was designed and run by MPRI, an Atlanta consulting company led by retired military officers. The CDC is paying the company $7 million for its work on the drill, future exercises and some planning work.

It started with CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding and her top infectious disease staff meeting Wednesday morning to confront the hypothetical disaster _ we repeat, this is a fake scenario:

_ A 22-year-old Georgetown University student who visited his family in Indonesia returned to the United States. He became seriously ill the next day and went to a Washington, D.C. hospital. Lab tests confirmed he had the bird flu that's been killing people in Asia.

In reality, this kind of influenza _ scientists call it H5N1 _ has not been spread efficiently from person to person. But in the drill, CDC officials got information that it spread among the student's family back in Indonesia and might be a contagion threat here.

More bad news...

_ The student lived in a dormitory, and some of his housemates were reporting flu-like illness.

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