Friday, July 18, 2014

UW-Madison's Preparedness Plan

An article published on line by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [UW puts worst-case-scenario planning for biosafety to the test] reported on the University of Wisconsin, Madison simulating a bombing at Camp Randall in order to gain practice and to test the university's emergency response plans. It reads like a planted article.

Rebecca Moritz, research compliance specialist for UW-Madison's biological safety office, is quoted throughout the article. She was acting as the university spokesperson and as an expert in emergency response planning.
Government anti-terrorism regulations dictate tight security around any biological agent that poses a potentially severe health threat. UW-Madison's labs are subject to regular and unannounced inspections by the CDC's enforcement division, Rebecca Moritz, research compliance specialist for UW-Madison's biological safety office, said Wednesday.

"When inspectors come in, it's their job to find things that are wrong to make us better," Moritz said. "When we have been inspected, we've been told many of our practices and procedures are best practice." ....

.... Moritz will be among more than 100 "victims" participating in Thursday's simulated Boston Marathon-esque terrorist bombing at Camp Randall because participating will benefit her work with biosecurity, she said.

Moritz was part of the planning committee because she works closely on biosecurity issues with the UW-Madison and Madison police departments and the FBI.....

.... UW researchers previously simulated an accidental release of a virus in a lab, Moritz said. That scenario involved a researcher coming down with symptoms at home.

"We come to their home, cover them in (Personal Protective Equipment) and put a respirator and gloves on them," Moritz said. "We transport them to the hospital and have a specific plan for who calls who." UW Hospital was involved in that simulation because the pretend victim was transported by the UW biosafety team and placed in one of several isolation rooms in the ambulance bay of the hospital's Emergency Department.

"I want to see their procedures from a patient's perspective," Moritz said, explaining why she's a pretend bombing victim.

The whole point of incidence response plans is to think about and drill all possible worst-case scenarios ahead of time, Moritz said.

"If something horrible were to happen, we've thought of everything and know exactly what to do."
There are a number of things about this, beside the article's reassuring tone, that give me pause. One is the described response to the accidental virus infection. Someone phones from home that they aren't feeling well and the emergency team rushes to their home, puts a respirator and gloves on them and then rushes them to the hospital.

If the person who was calling in was from Yoshihiro Kawaoka's flu lab, and if they really were sick from some gain-of-function highly virulent mutant strain, the steps needed in a containment plan are well beyond the university's capabilities; they are beyond anyone's.
The Flu Is Contagious

Most healthy adults may be able to infect other people beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than 7 days. Symptoms start 1 to 4 days after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons may still spread the virus to others. [bold in original]

If one of Kawaoka's lab workers calls in sick, it means that every person he or she had come in contact with over the preceding day or two at least, would have to be assumed to be a potential carrier of the virus and spreading it to the people they came into contact with; the number of exposures and carriers could cascade out of control. I wonder what the plan is? I wonder if there even is a plan? I hope there's something planned other than rushing to someone's house a few days late.

The article seems to me to have a reassuring tone, beginning and ending with assurances that all is well -- the university is prepared for big emergencies, even the escape of a deadly virus, but, it tells us in the next breath, there could never be such an accident in the first place. I'm comforted.

In past statements, the university has said that we ought not be too concerned because it's risky even to drive a car. But they have said honestly that the risk is never zero. In this article Sarah Van Orman, a physician and executive director of UW-Madison's University Health Services, says that an escape from the Kawaoka lab just isn't a "realistic scenario." This could be a change in their talking point.

I asked the writer of the Sentinel article whether she had actually seen the university's preparedness plan; she hasn't replied.

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