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TRENTON, N.J. - If a public health emergency took place that necessitated a vaccination, would you be able to promptly receive your medicine? That question was put to the test yesterday at an emergency preparedness and training drill that challenged local health officials to dispense “medications” to volunteer “patients” in a two-hour span.

The effort, called a “Point of Distribution” (POD) exercise, was held Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at The Sun National Bank Center Arena in Trenton and was a collaborative effort between Mercer County Division of Public Health, East Windsor Health Department, Ewing Health Department, Hamilton Health Department, Hopewell Township Health Department, Lawrenceville Health Department, Princeton Health Department, Trenton Health Department, and West Windsor Health Department. PODs are centralized locations where the public picks up life-sustaining commodities following a disaster or emergency and are designed to accommodate vehicle, pedestrian and mass transit traffic. Commodities can include, but are not limited to, medication, food, bottled water, and other items that might be needed given the emergency.

Whether it is as a result of bioterrorism, such as exposure to anthrax, or a natural event, such as a pandemic influenza, health departments must be able to distribute drugs or supplies in a timely fashion. The key to the effective utilization of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) lies in the distribution system or PODs. In the event of an emergency, these PODs need to be staffed in part by volunteers whose training will be the difference between an effective and efficient distribution system and a slow and ineffective one.

The recent emergence of a new widespread illness reinforces the critical importance of local health departments becoming more proficient in the dissemination of vaccines and medications to their local populations. The purpose of the drill is to help Mercer County strengthen its public health emergency response plan through a simulated public health emergency.

In order for the simulation of the mass distribution of vaccinations or pills to mimic a real emergency, volunteers from a number of local agencies and groups visited the arena to participate or help facilitate, including Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Medical Reserves Corps (MRC) representatives. The primary objectives for this exercise were to test the local health offices’ abilities to communicate with non-English speaking residents, particularly the local Latino population; and to assess the flow of traffic and the ability to efficiently move people through the process. The process involved registering the participant, translating the service for non-English speakers, providing education on the health threat and the medication or vaccine being used, and performing a medical screening to determine whether the person had an allergy to the drug being dispensed. Record-keepers noted the time it took from entrance to exit, and observers studied the flow of the exercise and the ability to communicate. The entire process took just a few minutes per patient. In lieu of actual medications, participants were thanked with health education pamphlets, granola bars and chewing gum.

“A public health emergency, natural or manmade, can strike anywhere at anytime and exercises such as this will better prepare Mercer County and its residents in case of any actual crisis affecting public health,” said Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes. “The heat wave that has hit the area presented an additional challenge for our volunteers, but they were up to it, and it shows just how many variables we can face in a real event.”

To learn more about the Mercer County Medical Reserves Corp., log on to www.njmrc.nj.gov and complete the application, and select Mercer County. To become a member of CERT, go to cert@dhs.gov.