In case of emergency …

Washington County is better prepared than ever for a disaster or health emergency, according to local officials.

Whether it be another derecho like the one that threw the county for a loop last June or a mass health outbreak, such as the H1N1 virus that swept the nation in 2009, county officials and health care professionals met Tuesday to talk about new and constantly adapting preparedness plans that could make a difference in the event of an emergency.

The Washington County Community Preparedness meeting was held at the Lafayette Hotel and was attended by officials and staff members from local hospitals, county and city health departments, law enforcement agencies, the county Emergency Management Agency and the county board of commissioners. During the meeting, speakers from the Washington County Health Department, Memorial Health System and Washington County EMA shared information and answered questions about ways the county might respond to and recover from emergencies.

Washington County’s EMA director Jeff Lauer said a new Emergency Operations Center currently being built in the bottom of the Children Services building on Davis Avenue in Marietta should be operational by June, and will provide power and resources for a multitude of agencies in the event of another devastating storm.

“Everything will be run off a generator including the servers,” said Lauer.

An Ohio Emergency Management Performance Grant will fund half the cost of the EOC, or $237,500, with the other half being furnished through the county. The center will include a radio/dispatch area, offices, an executive decision room, a vast operations floor with multiple display screens and reception area.

Lauer said the county EMA has done everything they could to keep cost down, from leaving the exposed concrete walls to forgoing an expensive built-up floor that would give them more leeway arranging how the room is set up.

Additionally, the building can be used for everyday purposes such as meetings and training exercises.

“We’re not building an EOC just to sit there and wait to be used,” Lauer said.

Local health departments and hospitals have also been developing plans of how best to react in the event of an emergency.

Though local hospitals were not overburdened by patients after the June derecho, the ensuing power outages did cause an influx in patients seeking oxygen therapy, said Anna Smith, director of infection control for Selby General Hospital.

“It could have easily been worse,” she said.

Smith has been working on developing Alternate Care Centers in Marietta that would be able to serve patient overflow in the event of crowding at Marietta Memorial Hospital or Selby General Hospital.

Currently Memorial Health System has memorandums of understanding with Washington State Community College, the Marietta Township Recreation Center, Ewing School and the O’Neill Center-all of which could potentially be selected as an Alternate Care Center if need arose, she said.

Additionally, the health system has a cache of supplies for up to 25 patients to be treated at one of the alternate sites.

Finally, the Washington County Health Department has been working on expanding and improving its Point of Dispensing (POD) Program.

“Basically in an event of a medical emergency, we have 48 hours to medicate or vaccinate the public. That means we have 48 hours to vaccinate 62,000 people in Washington County,” explained Angela Lowry, Public Health Emergency planner for Washington County.

PODs have already been used in Washington County. For example, vaccination clinics were set up in several areas in the county during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, she said.

These PODs would be strategically located around the county to keep everyone from piling into downtown Marietta for vaccination, added Regional Public Health Emergency Planner Betty King, who oversees Washington and 10 other counties.

“In the event of an emergency, we don’t want 62,000 people trying to get into Marietta to get medicine,” she said.

Several area agencies have already received training to help run one of the PODS. For example, multiple area school nurses just went through the training, said Lowry.

Local health department employees have drills at least yearly to practice setting up a dispensing location quickly and administering vaccinations from there, said Vickie Kelly, nursing director for the Marietta Health Department.

“It’s a big deal to set up. You have to practice it beforehand and think of possible situations that might come up,” she said.

“You can’t just wait until the day of an emergency and try it for the first time,” added Nurse Barbara Piehowicz of the Washington County Health Department.

Though Washington County has a lot of challenges ahead, it is comforting to see all the solid plans in place for an emergency situation, said Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers.

But added Feathers, “We can drill and drill, but until something happens, it’s really hard to tell.”