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Fostoria is laboratory for anthrax education, drill

FOSTORIA - James Fenn sat in the basement of Fostoria Community Hospital, a cup of coffee to his right and a box of anthrax to his left.

The coffee was real; the anthrax was not.

Mr. Fenn, a nurse and researcher at Toledo Hospital, was one of dozens of people taking part in a bioterrorism drill yesterday. Authorities simulated the release of anthrax into the offices of the Roppe Rubber plant in Fostoria.

Anthrax is a deadly bacteria that can kill 90 percent or more of the people it infects.

It's one of dozens of lethal viruses or bacteria that terrorists could someday use against the United States.

It was up to Mr. Fenn to construct a fake “dispersal device” and put it in the plant for employees there to “discover.”

Authorities are accustomed to preparing for natural disasters and the release of chemicals, either by terrorists or accidentally, but they are only just beginning to learn how to prepare for bioterrorist attacks.

That's why officials in Fostoria, including the Fostoria fire department, Fostoria Community Hospital, and ProMedica Health System, which owns the hospital, held their first bioterrorism drill - one of the first of its kind in northwest Ohio.

The drill started in the hospital emergency room, where people pretended to report flu-like symptoms to hospital personnel.

Dr. Martin Pontasch, director of the hospital emergency room, consulted a newly written bioterrorism manual prepared by Dr. Paul Rega, a Toledo Hospital emergency room physician.

In the drill, Dr. Pontasch and his staff discovered that all of the patients were coming from the Roppe Rubber plant and began suspecting an anthrax attack after reviewing Dr. Rega's manual.

“We have a situation down here,” said Amy Preble, director of patient care services for the hospital. “We could be looking at mass casualties here.”

Dr. Pontasch decided to announce a “Code Yellow,” and repeated announcements of the code were made over the intercom. The code signifies a situation in which mass casualties are expected.

At the plant, Fostoria firefighters donned protective clothing, searched the building, found Mr. Fenn's device, and began decontaminating workers.

Patients then began showing up at the hospital, where Dr. Pontasch began placing them into priorities ranging from the “worried-well” - those probably not infected - to the truly sick.

Maumee fire Chief Donald McConnaughy was observing the drill and decided to volunteer as a patient.

Mr. McConnaughy, coughing and wheezing like a heavy smoker, stumbled toward Dr. Pontasch and his staff.

He was quickly taken back to the emergency room for “treatment,” which in cases of anthrax exposure involves receiving vaccine.

The problem Fostoria Community Hospital faced, like most hospitals, is that it had little or no anthrax vaccine available. So the hospital called Toledo Hospital, which had its medical helicopter, ProMedica Air, fly in more supplies.

In the case of this drill, the vaccine happened to be peanut and plain M & Ms.

Dr. Pontasch said he thought yesterday's drill went well because “we picked up little things that need to happen” in the event of a real bioterrorist attack.

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