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Becker County prepares for a flu pandemic

A drill to test the distribution of medical supplies from the national stockpile -- and their local allocation to essential personnel -- went well Thursday, with 85 bags of placebos distributed in Detroit Lakes.

Getting those placebos -- actually M&Ms and Skittles packaged 10 apiece in plastic medical bags -- was no easy matter. A squad car with two auxiliary Becker County deputies had to be dispatched to Park Rapids to pick up, guard, and return the box to Detroit Lakes.

The box first traveled from Bemidji to Park Rapids.

In a real emergency, a more secure van would have been dispatched.

The deputies brought the box to the Community and Technical College in Detroit Lakes, where community health nurses had established a distribution center in the large conference room.

The current focus of the drill is a feared flu pandemic if the bird flu mutates to a form easily passed from human to human.

But there could be other things, like a biological attack by terrorists, which would require mass medical distribution from the national stockpile.

The five stations were manned largely by volunteers -- most of them students in the nursing program at the tech school, according to Ronda Stock, director of Becker County Public Health.

A community health nurse guarded the exit, making sure everybody who got medicine also had an "X" marked on his or her wrist. In a real emergency, people might try to sneak through the line again to get extra drugs for friends or family. The packets of placebos came with instructions to "take one a day for 10 days."

Deputies guarded the entrance, checking photo IDs to make sure the "essential personnel" -- health workers, police and firefighters, human services workers and others -- who arrived to get their medicine were who they said they were.

One man was shown the door by deputies after a staged altercation in which he had forgotten to bring a photo ID.

In a real emergency, a strong police presence will be essential because some people may have to be denied medicine because of allergies, existing sickness, pregnancy or some other medical reason, Stock said.

Others who are not on the "essential personnel" list may show up at the distribution center and be angry about being denied possibly lifesaving medicine.

The five nursing stations set up in a semicircle in the conference room are designed to gather quick, basic medical information before the drugs are distributed, to make sure they don't do more harm than good.

It took just 2 to 3 minutes per person to process the first of the essential personnel to arrive, who included the nurses at the center, County Emergency Management Director Dan Holm, Detroit Lakes Fire Chief Jeff Swanson and Sheriff Tim Gordon

The local drill went smoothly, Stock said, but communications from the state level could have been better: Stock and Holm were both notified about the start of the drill by a single email. That notification is supposed to be "three deep," Stock said, meaning the top three people in each organization -- community health and emergency management -- should have been notified.

The drill, which encompassed 13 counties in northwestern Minnesota, was planned in advance, so Stock was expecting notification, but she had to have another staff person back in the office check her email to find out the drill was under way.

But that's why drills are conducted, to find and fix the weak spots in the system, she said. And northwestern Minnesota was the first region to hold the drill.

"We're the Guinea pigs, people in the rest of the state will learn from us," she said.