SARS Preparedness and Response
It was an unseasonably warm Friday morning on 12 March 2004 in Anytown, Maryland. Since 1 March 2004, the Department of Homeland Security had raised the U.S. terror alert level to code orange (high) based on fresh intelligence reports from interviews with Al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
The Baltimore Orioles were in the process of gearing up for another season. On Monday, 8 March 2004, 75 diehard baseball fans returned to Dulles Airport on Orioles Airways Flight 000, after watching the Orioles play a series of spring training exhibition games in Florida over the weekend.
One of the passengers on this Orioles Airways Flight 000 was Mr. Smith, an Anytown, Maryland, businessman who had traveled to Taipei, Taiwan, for meetings during the week of 1 March 2004. He had taken a direct flight to Taipei from Dulles Airport on Monday, 1 March, with a stopover that day in Munich, Germany; he had flown back to Dulles on Thursday, 4 March, also with a stopover in Munich. Upon returning to Dulles, he spent the night at a hotel in McLean, Virginia. He flew the next morning, 5 March, from Dulles to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Orioles Airways Flight 007 to watch his beloved Orioles play a weekend’s worth of spring training games, before returning to Dulles on the 8 March Orioles Airways Flight 000.
Early on the morning of 8 March, before boarding Flight 000, Mr. Smith developed a sudden fever and dry cough, along with chills and muscle aches. Despite these symptoms, after the flight he still managed to drive from Dulles Airport to Anytown, Maryland. Within 2 hr of arriving at his apartment to his wife and two children in Anytown, Mr. Smith’s condition rapidly deteriorated, and he began to have difficulty breathing. His wife drove him to General Hospital emergency department in Anytown.
Mr. Smith was admitted to the intensive care unit at General Hospital on 8 March, with a suspected clinical diagnosis of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Three days later (11 March), doctors at one hospital in Washington, DC, one hospital in Baltimore, and General Hospital in Anytown admitted three patients each (total = 9 patients) with histories of acute onset of high fever (> 38°C) and dry cough followed by shortness of breath.
Upon taking a detailed travel history of these patients, physicians determined that seven of these nine patients (including the three new patients presenting to General Hospital in Anytown) had taken Orioles Airways Flight 000 on 8 March 2004. Two others had recently traveled to the United States from Guangdong Province, China. These developments were reported on a 24-hr cable media outlet before local, state, and federal public health officials had a chance to generate a formal press release.
Meanwhile, at General Hospital in Anytown, the condition of Mr. Smith steadily worsened despite aggressive treatment efforts, and he died of respiratory failure on the afternoon of 11 March.
By 2000 hr on 11 March, local, national, and international media outlets had converged upon Anytown, with a sea of television trucks and satellite equipment gathered outside General Hospital. The 911 system became flooded with calls from anxious citizens throughout Anywhere County, and cell phone networks were quickly overwhelmed by call volume. The mayor of Anytown, Maryland, and the local county health commissioner prepared to deliver a joint press conference with the state health commissioner at 2030 hr, followed by an address by the president to the nation on these developments at 2100 hr.
By 13 March 2004, a total of 90 cases of SARS were confirmed in Maryland, Pennsylvania, northern Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Twenty of these patients had died thus far from respiratory failure. The news of these deaths brought added fear to the region and the nation. Schools had been closed and unnecessary gatherings canceled in Anytown and the rest of the affected region for the past 2 days.
Epidemiologic workup by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in conjunction with state and local health departments revealed that most cases in this SARS outbreak were traceable to Mr. Smith, the Anytown businessman who had been exposed to SARS while on business in Taipei and who subsequently exposed fellow passengers on Orioles Airways Flight 000 because of a faulty on-plane ventilation system. The remaining cases were traced to the two travelers to Baltimore who came from Guangdong Province in China.
What are the hospital infection control issues associated with a SARS outbreak, and what are the most effective approaches to address these issues? What type of advance planning strategy could a local public health department use to identify the contributing factors to this public health emergency? What approaches could a local public health department use to deliver comprehensive public health prevention, intervention, and risk communication measures before, during, and after such an outbreak?
“Dirty Bomb” Preparedness and Response
It was late in the afternoon on a typically warm, humid, sunny 4 July afternoon in Anytown, Maryland. Thousands were gathered at the Anywhere County fairgrounds in Anytown in preparation for that evening’s upcoming parade and celebration, and the crowds were currently enjoying an outdoor concert and other festivities. Police estimated the afternoon’s crowd at the fairgrounds at approximately 10,000.
There was a breeze blowing westward at 10 miles/hr, cooling the fairground crowd slightly and making them a little more comfortable. Tens of thousands more were en route to Anytown for the evening’s celebration via the major highways, including I-95, I-495, and I-270. There was heavy freeway congestion at this hour outside downtown Anytown. Warnings from the Department of Homeland Security had been issued for vigilance during the 4 July holiday weekend, but the nature of this terrorist threat had been nonspecific, and the nation had been at a U.S. terror alert level of code yellow on this 4 July holiday.
It was estimated that 7,500 of the 10,000 people at the fairgrounds this afternoon were attending the concert. About 30 min into the show, a man driving a white van on Any Parkway suddenly stopped at the main entrance to the fairgrounds, about 50 yd from the concert venue. Ten seconds later the van exploded in a massive fireball, the blast hurling fiery shrapnel into the crowd.
The explosion killed 300 people instantly and injured 2,000 more in the adjacent crowd, and the blast could be heard over a 5-mile radius. Smoke emanating from the resulting fire was visible to motorists on the congested freeways and roads leading to the fairgrounds.
Within moments of the blast, thousands of people began fleeing from the fairgrounds. Motorists hearing the blast and seeing the smoke from area freeways and roads began to use their cell phones simultaneously by the thousands. Cellular phone systems rapidly became flooded.
On Monday, 8 July, an Associated Press wire bulletin surfaced that three moisture density gauges—each containing 10 mCi cesium-137—were first reported missing that morning from a construction site on Mary-land’s Eastern Shore. The site manager said the gauges were last seen on 1 July, the day before the construction crew left the site for the extended holiday weekend.
Given this new information, public safety authorities had a high index of suspicion that this terrorist blast may have been caused by a “dirty bomb” containing the cesium-137 from the Eastern Shore construction site. Environmental sampling revealed elevated radiation levels at the site of the explosion, consistent with this hypothesis.
In the several weeks after the attacks, emergency rooms noted a surge in patients coming in for anxiety-related symptoms. Area pharmacies were flooded with prescriptions for anxiolytic and antidepressant medications. Community mental health services were being strained as Anytown citizens attempted to come to grips with the horror of this terrorist attack. Many residents of Anytown stated they would never return to the city again because they believed the area would never be adequately decontaminated.
What are the potential environmental impacts of a dirty bomb? What can be done to prepare for and respond to such impacts? How would local, state, and federal public health and partner emergency response agencies work together in this scenario? What steps would be taken to distinguish a dirty bomb vs. from another type of explosion? What steps would be taken to evacuate, contain, and decontaminate the affected area? Would evacuation involve all of Anywhere County? Who would take the lead in communicating timely, accurate information to the public on radiation terror before, during, and after this event? What would the crisis- and consequence-phase mental health service responses be to an attack on Anytown by a “dirty bomb”? What steps, if any, could have prevented this attack from occurring or could have reduced the number of deaths and injuries?