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For Release: Sept. 1, 2011 – Larry Weatherford, Office of Communications – 405/271-5601
As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 nears, public health officials note that the catastrophic events of that day and subsequent anthrax attacks in the following months served to establish and bolster a solid emergency preparedness and response framework within the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH).
“While we remember 9/11 with somber reflections on the great tragedy that occurred, we also believe it marked the beginning of public health as a true partner in emergency preparedness and response,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Terry Cline. “In the decade since, beginning first with our bioterrorism response division that has now matured into all-hazards Emergency Preparedness and Response, we have invested in the infrastructure that makes the OSDH a partner in any type of disaster that strikes Oklahoma or surrounding states.”
As an example, Cline observed that when an outbreak of meningococcal disease occurred in the Oologah-Talala public school system in 2010, the OSDH responded by delivering more than 1,000 doses of antibiotics to the affected school as well as nearly 1,500 vaccinations to the community. “Our team of county and state first responders, epidemiologists and physicians were onsite within hours to provide antibiotics, answer questions and provide local support, while our public health laboratory conducted crucial tests to determine the nature of the outbreak,” he said.
The response staff at the Oklahoma State Department of Health has responded to natural disasters both in and outside of Oklahoma according to Scott Sproat, chief of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Service.
“We have responded to many disasters over the last several years, including winter storms and tornadoes in Oklahoma, and hurricanes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico,” Sproat said. “Each employee of the OSDH now receives training to prepare them to participate in a response. When tornadoes struck Oklahoma last spring, we deployed mobile health trailers within hours to support local response efforts.”
In an effort to better coordinate health systems and emergency response in a public health crisis, the OSDH works with the regional and metropolitan medical response systems, hospitals, nursing homes, dialysis centers and other medical system entities to have plans in place that assure these organizations can continue to provide patient care services. In addition, close working relationships have been established with state and local partners outside of the medical arena.
The OSDH also oversees the Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps (OKMRC). The program was started after 9/11 to create a network of local medical, public health and other volunteers who are pre-credentialed, organized and utilized to prepare for and respond to disasters. The OKMRC currently consists of more than 3,500 volunteers, and is regularly activated to support public health and medical emergency response operations in Oklahoma.
The OSDH Emergency Preparedness and Response Service continually trains to deal with different types of catastrophic health emergencies in addition to responding to disasters in Oklahoma. Earlier this year, a statewide exercise was held in conjunction with federal, tribal, state and local partners to test medication distribution plans. This type of planning is required to manage the Strategic National Stockpile and mass medication efforts and has helped lay a strong foundation for public health preparedness in Oklahoma.
Public health officials also point to the substantial increase in capacity at the State Public Health Laboratory. In the past decade, the laboratory has upgraded its Biosafety Level III facilities for the testing of suspect bioterrorism specimens. In addition, the OSDH has trained a network of 59 sentinel laboratories statewide to detect potential acts of bioterrorism, outfitted and trained specialized hazardous materials teams, and expanded staff and capacity to ensure testing is available at all times. Many of the improvements in capacity and expertise were demonstrated during the recent H1N1 flu pandemic.
“Certainly we have made real gains to better prepare Oklahoma’s public health system for response during a public health crisis or disaster,” said Cline. “While we can’t prevent acts of nature or all acts of terrorism, we are mindful that we must be ever vigilant in assuring that our state is ready to respond at the highest level possible.”
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