published Friday, September 9th, 2011

Hamilton County spends $123,000 to restock nerve gas antidote

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    Rebekah (Becky) Barnes is the Health Administator of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Hamilton County Commission has approved more than $590,000 to fund bioterrorism preparedness and replace supplies of nerve gas antidote.

Federal money continues to flow from two streams that originated in the wake of 9/11, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said Thursday.

"I think our ability to respond to many different things has improved vastly [since 2001]," Barnes said.

Commissioners on Wednesday approved the $123,766 purchase of nerve gas antidotes to replace aging supplies in the Metropolitan Medical Response System's pharmaceutical stockpile. The Chattanooga Fire Department created the medical response system with money from a grant first received in 2002, Barnes said.

The Metropolitan Medical Response System is managed by Chattanooga, so the city will reimburse the county for the entire cost of the purchase, Barnes told commissioners. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department merely orders the doses because it has a pharmacist.

"Nerve gas is a chemical warfare agent that was developed that has been used in the past on different populations," Barnes said.

Nerve gas can be delivered "any number of ways -- it can be in a container, a gas container, it could be a flyover."

Nerve gas antidotes are placed in emergency kits with autoinjectors and the kits then are placed on ambulances, fire trucks, police cruisers and in hospital emergency rooms, Barnes said.

The antidote expires every few years, Barnes said, and this is the third time it has been replaced since 2002.

In a finance committee meeting Sept. 1, Commissioner Warren Mackey asked Barnes if the older doses could be recycled or donated to another group.

She told him the drugs must be returned to the manufacturer.

"Hopefully, this is a medicine you don't ever want to use," Commissioner Jim Fields said.

Commissioners also agreed Wednesday to pay $466,300 to continue an emergency preparedness contract with the state. The recurring grant began in 2001, Barnes said.

Formerly called the bioterrorism preparedness program, the state's Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program receives $10.5 million from the federal government, according to Shelley Walker, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health.

Hamilton County's portion funds six employees who specialize in disaster planning and training, including an environmental scientist, a regional hospital coordinator, an epidemiologist, a nurse epidemiologist, a secretary and manager.

"We all work together to develop emergency plans through exercises and drills," said Dawn Ford, the county's health preparedness manager.

Drills range from those measuring emergency response times to a Federal Emergency Management Agency-graded drill every two years at TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Plant just north of Chattanooga, she said.

The epidemiologists also monitor local disease patterns, Ford said, and watch for health trends and investigate food-borne illness.

Ford's team also has served the county in other major events, hosting evacuees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and forming strike teams to go door-to-door to about 300 residences after the April 27 tornadoes.

This year's contract with the state is $32,700 less than last year's. Marti Smith, the health department's administrative services director, said the county eliminated a vacant part-time position and reduced expenses for training and supplies.

"I think certainly 9/11 and the anthrax [attacks] that followed ... made our preparedness levels more acute," Barnes said.

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about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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