Nurses attend bioterrorism conference

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(Host) State officials say preparations for a possible bioterrorism attack are going smoothly, but there’s much to be done before the plan is fully in place. Concerns about a terrorist attack were heightened recently when the government put the nation on the second highest level of alert.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) This week, about 40 nurses attended a bioterrorism conference in White River Junction, where Vermont Health Department officials laid out what’s being done to prepare for an outbreak of anthrax, plague or smallpox. The diseases could be used as weapons by terrorists.

Susan Schoenfeld is an epidemiologist with the health department. Schoenfeld says responding to bioterrorism is still a new area for health care workers, who have to learn how to identify symptoms of rare infectious diseases that might be used in an attack:

(Schoenfeld) “I think that we’re in the process of getting more and more ready. I don’t think there would be any place in the country that would say that we’re ready for this today, because we’d always want to be better prepared.”

(Zind) To be prepared, the Health Department is going to need the cooperation of these nurses and other health care workers, and the state’s hospitals. Officials are hoping a number of hospitals will agree to make preparations to treat smallpox cases. So far only Fletcher Allen in Burlington has signed on to the smallpox response effort.

Much of the discussion at the conference centered on the effort to administer the smallpox vaccine to up to 2,000 volunteer health care workers over the next several months. Twenty people have received the vaccine to date and it’s unclear how many will volunteer. A number of nurses at the conference said they want more information and more time to make up their minds about getting vaccinated:

“I would like to volunteer, but I’m going to have to go home and do some research.”

“I’m a prime candidate to have it. I’m going to go home and talk to my husband and probably talk to my brother, who’s an INS agent, just to find out how serious this is. Is this really necessary?”

“It would be different if we had a case of smallpox. But whether or not it’s worthwhile doing before there’s anything out there.”

(Zind) Currently there are no plans to inoculate the public. State officials, say there will be a contingency plan to operate 12 clinics for 16 hours a day over 10 days to vaccinate the entire population if necessary.

The Health Department has had to plan for a variety of scenarios, some with sobering aspects: like armed guards to protect the smallpox vaccine from a clambering public. It’s a lot of work for something that officials say is unlikely to happen in Vermont.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in White River Junction

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