Zombies invaded Ann Arbor Saturday, but citizens need not worry. A joint team from the University’s School of Public Health and Washtenaw County Public Health contained the incident and effectively treated all subjects who had been exposed to the Toxoplasma zombie parasite.

In reality, Saturday’s disaster preparedness exercise at the Washtenaw County Learning Resource Center served an important role in preparing community health officials for a potential emergency. Though the simulation used “zombies” — volunteers from the community who were provided makeup prior to the event — the exercise was intended to test the ability of local public health agencies to respond to a wide array of possible scenarios in the community, such as a bioterrorism attack, flu outbreak or natural disaster.

In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control, have invested heavily in community preparedness programs such as the “zombie invasion.” While zombies do not present a serious threat to communities, the CDC launched the national program to help local agencies better prepare for any disaster.

“If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack,” wrote Ali Kahn, director of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.

The event, organized through the School of Public Health, serves the dual purpose of preparing public response measures and teaching students about dealing with outbreaks or other disasters. In particular, the simulation applies principles taught in the graduate course “Applied Epidemiology,” allowing students to see in action the procedures they study over the course of a semester.

Associate Epidemiology Prof. Eden Wells, director of the preventative medicine residency, called this year’s event a “functional exercise.” While she implemented a similar event last year to help her class better understand the material, this year’s event had the added element of involving local public health agencies, giving the students a chance to partake in a more realistic and beneficial exercise.

“These events are really fun to engage with, but they really need to be developed with concrete goals and objectives,” Wells said. “It’s fun if you just want to have a zombie event, but for this we’re actually undertaking (the event) with specific teaching competencies in mind.”

Wells said Saturday’s exercise was intended to simulate a “point of dispensing” scenario. The procedure is used when public health officials need to distribute a large volume of treatments, medication or vaccination over an entire community population. In such cases, both efficiency and preparedness are key in delivering the care people need in a timely manner.

“They need to be able to do this for a large number of people in a short period of time, so it really is a plan that has to be exercised quite often, because you continually need volunteers to help set up and you need the ability to keep the experience fresh in everybody’s mind,” Wells said.

Throughout the simulation, volunteers were assigned various roles — either as zombies seeking treatment or uninfected individuals seeking vaccination — and given instructions regarding how to behave and how to answer certain medical questions. The response workers were then responsible for managing the treatment process as the “patients” moved through the POD site.

The response workers also had to deal with a variety of challenging scenarios that could be experienced in a real-life scenario, such as language barriers, unaccompanied children, disabled individuals and potentially contagious subjects.

Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, Washtenaw County Public Health Department public information officer, said the exercise provided a way for the public health workers to assess potential areas of improvement in their procedures. While plans often look great on paper, she said problems often come to light once such plans are implemented.

As bottlenecks in the process were identified, the officials leading the event were able to reallocate resources and workers, thus ensuring a smooth flow of patients through the treatment area. All patients leaving the POD received a bag of jelly beans, which represented medication that would be distributed in the case of a real-world emergency.

Public Health graduate student Matthew Shearer, one of the event coordinators, said the complexity and variety of potential public health concerns makes POD scenarios a “pretty sizable undertaking.” He added that students can benefit from seeing simulations rather than experiencing the procedure for the first time during a real emergency situation.

“It gives people something familiar and fun to take part in, but it also gives us the platform to really express the important of preparedness,” Shearer said. “We want to inform the community that public health preparedness starts with you. We can put out all of the information we want, but people need to take ownership of themselves, their families and friends and make sure they have plans and materials available in the event something happens.”

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