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Weekend Exercise Will Measure USPS Anthrax Response Time

A response exercise scheduled for this weekend will measure the time it takes to deliver the first dose of antibiotics to a population after a widespread biological attack.

Postal workers on Sunday will deliver empty pill bottles to 37,000 homes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area as part of Operation Medicine Delivery, the first dry run of a United States Postal Service anthrax response plan. Health officials announced the exercise at a joint Minnesota Department of Health (MDH)-USPS press conference in St. Paul Thursday morning.

“We’re going to be looking at how quickly it takes us to get the supply in and to different types of households--Apartment buildings versus rural areas and areas where there’s a significant walk to one place to another,” Edward J. Gabriel, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said by phone after the press event.

The exercise has been in the works for months and will assess the process from the initial confirmation of a biological attack to the delivery of medications and debriefing. And for the most part, the exercise is unscripted, Gabriel said.

“The staging of the medication, placing them into the postal vehicles, the postal workers coming to work, the operation center monitoring the activities--all of it will be a part of the exercise. We plan, but don’t script it to the point where every variable is thought out ahead of time because we want to test how the process works,” he said.

The National Postal Model for the Delivery of Medical Countermeasures, sometimes shortened as the “postal model,” is a plan that in event of an anthrax attack, a volunteer corps of mail carriers from local post offices can be deployed within 48 hours to deliver the antibiotic doxycycline to residents. Each postal worker would travel with a single police officer escort.

"We want it to be as thorough and accurate as we can so we can see what we can learn from this exercise," said St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla.

Untreated inhalation of anthrax has a 90 percent mortality rate, but deaths from anthrax can be drastically reduced if antibiotics are started within 48 hours (the mortality rate drops to 75 percent if treated).

One hundred eighty volunteer carriers, each covering two routes, could distribute required medicines to 575,000 people in 205,000 Minneapolis-St. Paul households in a nine-hour day, according to past estimates. The program in Minnesota already has more than 300 volunteers.

For Sunday’s exercise, 40 postal workers will deliver to 36 routes, USPS spokesman Pete Nowacki said. In the event of a real emergency, 3.2 million people in the metro area would need antibiotics. However, in a real emergency, medicine distribution centers would be set up to complement postal delivery.

“Will it be a success? It’s already a success,” Gabriel said of the postal model. “[In this exercise] we’re looking to see what parts of the system can do better and what parts of the process can potentially be changed.”

Other cities hoping to utilize the postal model are Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Louisville, Kentucky.

“The advantage of this plan is that this is what these postal workers do each day, which is what makes this program have so much potential,"  he said.

photo from the Department of Health and Human Services​