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Biological attack called real threat

U.S. not prepared for devastating assault, response teams say

By Sarah Huntley, News Staff Writer

They've said it before, and they'll say it again. But this time, experts hope America will listen: This country is not prepared for a biological attack, the horror of which would dwarf the devastation seen at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"It's not a matter of if it is going to happen, but when," said Kurt Schlegel, a retired Aurora Fire Department battalion chief helping to coordinate the metro area's medical response to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Denver has been at the forefront of preparing for chemical and biological assaults since 1997, when world leaders gathered here for the Summit of Eight conference. That preparation was put to the test last year when the city became one of three sites nationwide to undergo a simulated emergency response exercise.

In Denver, the scenario involved the covert release of pneumonic plague at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For four days, metropolitan emergency, hospital and law enforcement officials found their resources stretched to the limit as they attempted to deal with what quickly became an epidemic.

It was, in a word, a disaster.

According to a report compiled by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies:

In four days, between 3,700 and 4,000 people were infected and 950 to 2,000 of them died.

Antibiotic supplies and hospital resources were inadequate.

Security became a major issue at clinics designated to dispense antibiotics and other supplies.

Health-care officials and first responders, such as paramedics and law enforcement officials, were ill-prepared to communicate with each other.

The exercise was designed to become a worst-case scenario, but local officials called it an "eye opener" and a "wake-up call."

"It really did help us identify the issues," said Dr. Stephen Cantrill, who, as associate director of emergency medicine at Denver Health Medical Center, has testified before Congress about biological warfare.

News this week that some of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks inquired about crop-dusting equipment and hazardous materials licenses frightened those who have studied the risks.

"It's not a slam dunk, but the fact that they are thinking about it is alarming," Cantrill said. "It's not a slam dunk to put planes into the World Trade Center, either, and they did that."

A biological attack could be difficult to detect. Many of the possible diseases would start out with symptoms similar to an upper respiratory illness or the flu.

The Governor's Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee, created last year, was charged with outlining a biological disaster plan.

One of the biggest issues confronted so far is how to maximize a limited supply of antibiotics and antidotes. First priority would go to health-care providers.

The Metropolitan Medical Response System, funded with two $400,000 government contracts, is coordinating with Adams, Arapahoe, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties to prepare for the first 24 hours after an attack.

MMRS has also purchased four decontamination units for use after a chemical assault. Next steps include efforts to boost inventories of protective apparel and antibiotics.

By January, authorities hope to have hospital preparedness, training and equipment plans in place.

September 27, 2001,1299,DRMN_664_833712,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, September 27, 2001

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