Wednesday, April 06, 2005

'Death Toll' Tops 3,000 in NJ, CT Terror Drills...

CBS 2 - New York News |

'Death Toll' Tops 3,000 in NJ, CT Terror Drills...

* Poor Communication, Overstretched Staffing Limit Effectiveness

Apr 5, 2005 5:47 pm US/Eastern

Problems with communication and hospital staffing surfaced Tuesday as the nation's largest anti-terrorism drill entered its second day of simulated biological and chemical weapons attacks.

The "death toll'' as part of the fictitious exercise in New Jersey involving an outbreak of pneumonic plague soared past 3,000 by midday. At the same time, Connecticut officials were dealing with an influx of fake victims from a simulated chemical weapons attack on the New London waterfront.

One of the most crucial decisions made by New Jersey officials on Monday as part of the exercise _ drastically restricting travel within and into Union and Middlesex counties _ was poorly communicated and did not reach nearly enough of the "public'' or emergency responders, said state police Lt. Dennis McNulty.

"Decisions were made at the highest levels of government, but there are early indications those decisions were not disseminated in an appropriate fashion,'' he said. "There seems to have been some disconnect. Rest assured, that will be scrutinized.''

Likewise, officials at Union Hospital, a small 201-bed community facility nearest to the site of the simulated plague release, said staffing issues quickly cropped up as waves of "victims'' showed up at four large blue outdoor triage tents set up in the emergency room parking lot.

"We will face the reality of employees who will not want to come to work and who will want to stay home with their families. We will have to deal with a shortage of beds and we will have to deal with traffic in and around the hospital,'' said Kathryn Coyne, the hospital's executive director.

Fatigue among hospital workers also was becoming a problem.

"The staff has been doing this for 24 hours now,'' Coyne said. ``We have people who hadn't eaten or gone to the bathroom all day long.''

In a real emergency, the hospital would have to set up areas for large numbers of workers to eat, shower and sleep and would have trouble storing a large number of dead bodies, Coyne said.

By day's end, more than 100 fake patients were expected at the hospital; 64 arrived by about 9 a.m. Doctors, nurses and the actors all wore white face masks, and each ``patient'' was given a colored toe tag to signify the severity of their condition. Black tags were reserved for several patients who were ``dead on arrival'' and 22 others were "admitted'' to the hospital and given gowns and beds.

By noon Tuesday, drill participants had counted 3,076 "deaths'' from the plague in New Jersey, a figure that included fictitious "unattended deaths,'' or people supposedly found dead in their homes. The toll could reach 9,000 by week's end, said Roger Shatzkin, a spokesman for the state Office of Counterterrorism.

Exercise planners had victims "traveling'' as far away as Canada before falling ill, including some on a fictitious cruise ship that supposedly left Bayonne with some exposed patients on board.

The $16 million, weeklong drill began Monday with an investigation of a black sport utility vehicle suspected of releasing an aerosolized form of the deadly bacteria.

Connecticut officials focused Tuesday morning on recovery and investigation from the simulated attack there. Rescue crews and dogs sorted through the rubble pile, looking for volunteers playing victims and dummies used to represent fatalities. State officials discussed how to clean up the partially collapsed building without risking additional injuries or contaminating the environment with the simulated mustard gas.

Volunteers posing as grieving family members began arriving at a family center Tuesday morning, as FBI and state police investigators worked to determine who planned the attack.

As intelligence agencies attempt to find the culprits of the attack in New Jersey, the state's health care system was expected to be pushed to the breaking point. Hospitals were to continue to be open and operating normally to treat real patients during the drill.

The drills are being monitored by top U.S. Homeland Security officials from a command center near Washington, as well as regional centers in New Jersey and Connecticut. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was expected to hold a news conference on the exercise Wednesday at Rutgers University in Piscataway.

Large-scale simulated dispensation of medication is to be the focus of Wednesday's drills at various locations.