“Operation Medicine Delivery” will test nation’s first comprehensive plan

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NEWS RELEASE — The scenario might be a widespread, life-threatening infectious disease outbreak.

Or it might be a deliberate bioterror attack, targeting the entire metro area, using a deadly agent like anthrax. It could be any large scale health emergency that requires getting medicine to a very large number of people, very quickly.

Public health officials acknowledge that, at any given point in time, the odds are against something like that actually happening. But they also warn that if we ever face an emergency requiring rapid distribution of preventive medicine to the public – and we aren’t ready – the consequences could be devastating.

This coming weekend, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will try out a new strategy for delivering emergency medicine to the public. On Sunday morning, postal personnel will fan out into neighborhoods in four local ZIP codes, and deliver a simulated supply of medicine to some 37,000 individual mailing addresses. The target ZIP codes are 55101, 55102, 55411 and 55422.

It’s part of an exercise called “Operation Medicine Delivery,” which will test the nation’s first-ever comprehensive plan for using postal personnel to deliver emergency meds.

The simulated medicine will take the form of an empty pill bottle. People who receive one of the pill bottles can simply recycle it. They don’t need to do anything else.

The simulated event for the exercise will be a large scale, airborne anthrax attack – the kind of incident that would make it especially urgent to get people on medication quickly.

“If an anthrax attack ever took place, we would need to get everyone who might have been exposed on preventive antibiotics – within 48 hours, if possible,” said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota Commissioner of Health. “Our primary tool for doing that would be special medication distribution centers, operated by local public health agencies and located throughout the metro area.”

Getting people on medication is especially important with a highly fatal disease like respiratory anthrax, Dr. Ehlinger said. The task could be very challenging. Depending on the extent of the attack, it might be necessary to get medications to more than 3.2 million people in the greater Twin Cities area, he said.

“If we can use postal personnel to do part of that job, it can take some of the pressure off of the medication centers,” he said. “It can help us get the job done that much faster, potentially saving many lives. That’s what makes this weekend’s trial run so important.”

Despite the importance of the exercise, officials emphasized that residents of the four target ZIP codes should not be concerned about the activities taking place in their neighborhoods this weekend.

“It’s only a test,” said Jane Braun, Director of Emergency Preparedness at MDH. “We can’t stress that too much. And we also want people to know that we didn’t select the target ZIP codes because people in those neighborhoods face any unusual risks.”

The target ZIP codes were chosen to include a wide variety of housing configurations and delivery requirements for postal workers as they distribute the meds, Braun said. The four ZIP codes include portions of St. Paul, Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Golden Valley. The simulated medications will be delivered to all residential mailing addresses in those ZIP codes, but not to post office boxes or business addresses.

In addition to MDH and USPS, partners and collaborators for Operation Medicine Delivery include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC, Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health, Minneapolis Public Health and Family Support, Saint Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, and local law enforcement agencies in the metro area. Also participating is Minnesota ECHO, a non-profit organization specializing in communication with limited-English populations and cultural communities.


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