This is a test

Nomaan Merchant

As Patti Szarnych clutched her stomach and groaned, the people surrounding her laughed and urged her to fall out of her chair.

Eventually, she obliged, letting out a loud moan as she collapsed onto the gym floor. Above her, an amused nurse called, “Medic!”

It was all a drill. For three hours Thursday morning, more than a dozen Evanston-area residents acted as if they had been exposed to anthrax.

The drill was sponsored by the Evanston Department of Health and Human Services and was held inside the Levy Center, 300 Dodge Ave. The department wanted to gauge the city’s ability to respond to biological attack.

“We thought it was important for (city employees) to know what roles they are expected to fill,” said Alexandra Song, the department’s medical director.

Participants first filled out medical papers with fake names, addresses and ages. The “patients” then approached the registration table, where workers diagnosed their symptoms. After a weight measurement, the volunteers received medication as well as advice on how they should take the pills.

Workers also provided fictional psychological counseling for participants in the drill. One “patient,” Evanston resident Bhavani Nagaraj, started talking about her two “siblings” who had gone missing during the “crisis.” Eventually, a worker told her she could write the names of her siblings on a list – a piece of paper the worker had flipped over a few seconds earlier. Nagaraj declined the offer.

The department held the drill in response to a similar exercise held by the State of Illinois, Song said. City officials wanted to practice moving anthrax drugs and vaccines from the Cook County storage area to Evanston and then distributing them to residents.

The department chose anthrax as the focus of its drill in order to expand on the state’s exercise, Song said.

Song said the department is developing a plan in case of an outbreak of avian flu, which recently caused deaths in Asia, but she would not go into specifics about it.

Participant and Red Cross volunteer Terrence Boyle said he thought the drill did not accurately simulate the possible ramifications of a biological attack.

“In a real situation, you would have no fewer than a hundred or even a thousand people here clamoring for support,” said Boyle, an Evanston resident.

The drill did provide valuable experience for city employees, said Community Information Coordinator Donna Stuckert, who called the exercise “good practice” in case of an attack.

“You can’t sit around and say it’s never going to happen,” Stuckert said.

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]