Pitt County public health workers on Friday practiced responding to an infectious disease outbreak.
The Pitt County Health Department shut down Friday afternoon and held an emergency preparedness drill at the agricultural center. About 150 employees from the health department, Vidant Community Health Programs, Pitt County Schools’ school nurse program, Pitt County Emergency Management, the public information officers for the county, school system, health department and sheriff’s office and the NC Eastern Regional Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response participated.
“Going through this you get to play patient or general citizen and then you get on the other side and actually provide the service,” said Dr. John Morrow, Pitt County Public Health director. “They are learning both what the public would go through in these scenarios, as well as what their responsibility (is) and what other people’s responsibilities are. It just makes you a better team player.”
Morrow said it also helps staff feel more relaxed, because if they ever have to respond to an outbreak they will have gone through the process.
Friday’s drill was built on a scenario of a restaurant worker being diagnosed with hepatitis A, a highly contagious liver infection, said Kathy Sheppard, Pitt County public health preparedness coordinator.
In the scenario, the worker was responsible for preparing the restaurant's tea and for stocking a salad bar. The worker was on duty for a five-day period between the 19th and the 23rd of the month, and it was believed close to a 1,000 people could have been at the restaurant during that period.
The situation was further complicated because the restaurant worker had three siblings — ages 6, 13 and 17 — and there was a chance their classmates may have been exposed. So the school system was working with public health to address the issue, said Jennifer Johnson, Pitt County Schools public information officer.
The situation required the health department to set up a point of dispensing station, so a mass vaccination clinic could be held, Sheppard said.
It’s really important for us to respond to outbreaks at anytime because they can occur at anytime,” Sheppard said.
Pitt County has never had a hepatitis A outbreak. But in 2009, when there was a worldwide outbreak of H1N1 flu, the health department set up a point of dispensing station, better known as a flu vaccination clinic, one Saturday at the health department, Morrow said.
“Hepatitis A is a hot topic. We’ve had outbreaks in multiple state across the county recently,” Sheppard said. Morrow said Mecklenburg County dealt with a hepatitis A outbreak within the last several months.
Hepatitis A also was selected for the scenario because organizers also wanted staff to practice giving a vaccination shot, with a tongue depressor stepping in for a needle, Sheppard said. During the last drill, held in 2015, pills were distributed in the scenario.
This event kicks off the health department’s commitment to hold yearly drills, she said.
“The staff really appreciates the hands-on experience of doing this, not just hearing me explain the process,” Sheppard said. “They actually work through the process and we improve our plan every time we do this.”
Along with practicing the set up of a point of dispensing site and managing the vaccination process, the drill gave staff an opportunity to observe how much time it takes to run somebody through this process and what glitches can happen, Morrow said. They will analyze the day’s events to determine what can be improved.
Morrow said he was pleased with Friday’s drill.
“I think we’ll make a few adjustments, nothing major,” he said. “I think it’s operated fairly smoothly.
“This could happen Christmas, this could happen on a weekend so we have to put it together immediately,” Morrow said.
On Thursday night, the department held a “call down,” which simulated calling all employees to notify them a situation had occurred and all needed to come to work.
“We do that regularly to find out how many of our employees would not respond if we had an event today,” Morrow said. “Some people would be on vacation, out of town so we need to know how prepared we are and how many people would respond.
“Often the public doesn’t see, because this is behind the scenes, that public health are those first responders when something like this happens in your community,” he said.
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