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Hospital, Region Test Readiness

Matthew Hersh

This week, Mercer County will be the site of simulated terror attacks and mock biological attacks as part of a statewide exercise that tests the efficacy of the regional terror response system and domestic security in general.

The trial will require officials of municipal and county-wide agencies to respond as they would in a real terror attack. This includes actions taken by our Fire and Police departments, the University Medical Center at Princeton, and the Princeton Health Department.

"What we're planning on doing is having a clinic where you give medications out to people," said David Henry, health officer of the Princeton Health Department. The protocol will go exactly according to a real attack, he said, except in this case, the victims being administered the medication for treatment will only be actors. That event, which will take place in Ewing Township, is indicative, Mr. Henry said, to other county-wide programs that will be underway this week. Announced by Acting Governor Richard Codey last Tuesday, the mock terror exercise called TOPOFF 3, short for "Top Officials," is mandated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness. The drill is what he called a "very thorough test," and is part of a two-year program of seminars, planning events, and exercises.

Some residents may get a glimpse of the hospital's test exercise. UMCP will conduct a bio-terrorism drill that reflects a "plague-like incident," according to Nancy Panarella, director of emergency services for Princeton HealthCare System, UMCP's parent entity. "You could see somebody in a respiratory mask," she said, adding that the hospital would be setting up decontamination shelters and showers. Additionally, there will be signs posted outside and around the hospital letting people know that the facility is involved in the TOPOFF 3 exercise.

Because this week's drill is geared toward imminent disaster, every level of hospital employee will be involved in the exercise, Ms. Panarella said, adding that while this particular exercise is amplified, the hospital executes several drills a year to prepare for an attack of some kind. With major cities such as New York and Philadelphia nearby, Princeton has been identified as an area that could be beneficial in the event of an attack.

In late August 2004, as the Republican National Convention descended on Madison Square Garden, UMCP readied itself in the event of an attack.

But in that case, "we were all preparing for an event," Ms. Panarella said. "This drill is preparing for a potential future event, but is actually testing the state's readiness and homeland security plan."

The hospital is holding a drill in the event of a biological event. If this were a chemical incident drill, people presenting to the department would have to be decontaminated, Ms. Panarella said. In this event, other patients, visitors, and staff are protected from other people, as they would in the event of a plague, where victims suffer from acute respiratory infections.

From experience and what she feels is a readiness for the task at hand, Ms. Panarella said she feels the hospital would be suitably prepared to take on an influx in patients in the event of a wide-reaching emergency: "We've had drills before, we've had a number of real events before, so there are all sorts of levels of preparedness that we test for every year."

This particular drill spans international borders. In addition to New Jersey and Connecticut, Great Britain and Canada are involved.

The Health Department's Mr. Henry emphasized that the realistic nature of the drill should not alarm people but keep them more at ease in the event of a real incident. "This is just a drill, so people don't panic when they see various news reports. This is just to test our preparedness.

"People should stay calm and do their usual day-to-day activities – it's just that we'll be running around," he said.

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