Crowds of students packed into the auxiliary gym at Johnson Center for exercise of a different sort recently. No, they were not attending class, dribbling basketballs or running laps. They were taking part in a drill to test how well New Mexico is prepared to respond to a public health emergency.

The University of New Mexico joined with UNM Hospital and other emergency agencies for the exercise led by the New Mexico Department of Health to practice a Point of Dispensing (POD) process. A POD is designed to distribute medication to a large group of people during an emergency.

This drill was to determine how quickly the POD could get emergency medication (prophylaxis) to first responders dealing with a weaponized anthrax attack. Overall, the plan worked well.

“The event we were simulating was a biological anthrax threat,” said UNM Clinician Educator and Associate Professor Krista Salazar. “We were testing our ability to quickly and safely dispense medication to our citizens and safely.”

Exercises such as this one are key in preparing for public health emergency as they help identify strengths and areas for improvement. They also offer an opportunity to practice plans and procedures that are in place to protect New Mexico in the event of a potential public health risk.

“This was our first, real exercise,” said Incident Commander Mark Reynolds. “This scenario had never been performed before or at a true table-top level, especially with the DOH (Department of Health). As the Incident commander for this exercise, with hundreds of hours of UNM provided ICS training, there were many valuable lessons learned that I will use for future exercises.”

About 250 of the “players” for the exercise came from the UNM Colleges of Nursing and Pharmacy who got the chance to practice hands-on disaster response training without having to experience a disaster. The medications distributed included doxycycline and another antibiotic called ciprofloxin.

“In this scenario we were trying to get as much medication to as much of the public as we possibly could,” said Emergency Manager Byron Piatt. “In general, our POD modules are designed to handle approximately 100 people per hour. Depending upon the scenario, we could expand and grow it and put as many PODs as we physically have room for.”

“We conduct exercises very frequently, but often times they blend into the day-to-day activities,” added Robert Perry, manager of emergency preparedness for the University of New Mexico Hospital. “For instance, our POD plan is exercised every time we have a flu vaccine clinic, including our drive-through clinics each fall.”

Other players included the University’s Campus Community Emergency Response Team (CCERT) and a number of UNM and UNMH staff. “The CCERT is comprised of students, faculty and staff who have been trained to assist during an incident or a planned event,” said Piatt. “We’ve taught the CCERT course for the last four semesters and have trained about 70 people.”

Along with the Department of Health, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the City Readiness Initiative Partners also participated in the exercise. They include: the City of Albuquerque, City of Rio Rancho, Bernalillo County, Sandoval County, Torrance County, Valencia County, Cochiti Pueblo, Isleta Pueblo, Jemez Pueblo, Pueblo of Sandia, San Felipe Pueblo, Santa Ana Pueblo, Santo Domingo Pueblo and Zia Pueblo.