SPRINGFIELD – Governor Rod R. Blagojevich today said a three-day exercise next week will test the state’s ability to respond to an influenza pandemic and terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction (please note: this is an exercise only, designed to improve emergency planning and preparedness). Last September, the Governor called for a major test of the state’s preparedness following Hurricane Katrina, when emergency response in the Gulf Coast was overwhelmed by the nation’s largest natural disaster in history. Also today, the Governor signed Senate Bill 2921, legislation that will ensure that life-saving medications can be quickly dispensed during a health crisis, such as a pandemic flu outbreak, by allowing local emergency officials to enlist large numbers of health care volunteers to assist with distribution.
“Emergency management means planning for worst. It means practicing our reactions to different potential disasters, testing our systems, and then using what we learn to improve our planning,” Gov. Blagojevich said. “Three years ago we participated in the TOPOFF 2 federal exercise, and that was very helpful. We’re now the first state to follow up on the lessons learned from a TOPOFF exercise with an ambitious full-scale exercise like the one we’re conducting next week.”
The exercise will focus on key emergency responder coordination, critical decisions and the integration of state and local assets during a public health emergency and simultaneous terrorist incident. It will also validate preparedness efforts that occurred following the state’s participation in the May 2003 national Top Officials 2 (TOPOFF 2) exercise. There have been three national TOPOFF exercises, which are designed to train top officials and first responders from the federal, state and local levels. TOPOFF exercises also aim to develop a coordinated national and international response to weapons of mass destruction terrorist attacks.
“For more than seven months, we’ve worked closely with the U.S Department of Homeland Security to develop a challenging scenario that will test our capabilities,” said Col. Jill Morgenthaler, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for public safety. “While we expect this exercise will demonstrate that our training, planning and equipment have prepared us to respond to large-scale disasters, we also expect that we will uncover areas that need to be addressed. We believe it’s much better to identify these issues during an exercise situation so that we can fix them, rather than discovering them during a real crisis when people’s lives may be at stake.”
Morgenthaler noted that originally the state intended to test plans for mass evacuation during the May exercise, but decided to delay that objective until a late summer exercise when real-life concerns arose about pandemic flu. “Right now there are many concerns throughout the world about a possible pandemic, and we felt it was critical that we test our ability to handle a situation that could cause millions in Illinois to become seriously ill or die.” Another exercise is being planned for August.
Illinois’ exercise will begin Tuesday afternoon and conclude Thursday afternoon. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people are participating in the exercise, including the State Weapons of Mass Destruction team, the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS), the city of Chicago and Cook county, the Illinois Medical Emergency Response Team (IMERT), the Civil Support Team, the American Red Cross and several Citizen Emergency Response Teams.
State agencies involved in the exercise include the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the Illinois departments of Transportation, Corrections, Public Health, Agriculture, Central Management Services, and Natural Resources, Illinois State Police, Illinois National Guard, Illinois Commerce Commission, State Fire Marshal, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the Secretary of State Police. Representatives from these departments and the American Red Cross will coordinate response efforts through the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) in Springfield. The SEOC will coordinate with the city of Chicago and Cook County on response to the health crisis portion of the exercise, which will be centered in that region.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is assisting in the development and evaluation of the exercise and providing approximately $750,000 to fund the exercise.
Many public health experts consider influenza pandemics to be inevitable, although it is not possible to predict when one will next occur. Three influenza pandemics occurred in the 20th Century, in 1918, 1957 and 1968. In 1918, an estimated 40 to 50 million people died worldwide, 500,000 of them in the United States. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) estimates that in Illinois alone, over the course of 12 weeks, two million people may become ill and 8,700 people may die.
If such a pandemic were to occur, SB 2921, signed today by the Governor, enables cities or counties with emergency response plans approved by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) to enlist volunteer health care professionals to help distribute medications if the Governor has declared a disaster. Licensing provisions for out-of-state health care workers can be suspended and the scope of practice for workers from Illinois can be modified to allow volunteers to dispense needed medication during the crisis. The change will now allow communities to more efficiently handle health care crises on a local level in coordination with IEMA and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
SB 2921 was sponsored by Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), Sen. Pamela J. Altoff (R-Crystal Lake) and Rep. Arthur L. Turner (D-Chicago), and is effective immediately.
"A public health disaster could happen at any moment," said Sen. Hunter. "In preparation for any possible disaster event, this bill will enable the State to deploy health professionals who are accredited by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to help if needed in case of a disaster and be assured that their assistance is authorized by law."
“This legislation brings authority back to the local level, giving local health departments and emergency management agencies the ability to recruit and acquire volunteers and workers when a crisis does occur,” said Sen. Althoff. “I want to commend Sen. Hunter for bringing this important issue to our attention, and working with us to craft a quality piece of legislation that enables first responders to provide the highest quality emergency care quickly to those in need.”
“This new law will enhance the City's ability to marshal critical health care volunteer response to regional or local problems in Illinois by relaxing statutory restrictions that limit flexibility to distribute medications on a large scale in a public health disaster,” said Andrew Velasqueaz III, Executive Director of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. “This new law is good public policy for the City, the State and the region.”
In another move to expedite the state’s response to potential health risks, Gov. Blagojevich announced earlier this week that an Illinois Department of Agriculture lab in Galesburg is the first lab in the state to receive certification to perform vital testing for avian influenza. This lab will enable the state to significantly cut down the time it takes to determine whether a suspected case of bird flu may be positive, allowing Illinois to quickly activate the response.