County Seeking 2,400 Volunteers For Possible Smallpox Outbreak

  • Wednesday, February 26, 2003
  • Rob York
Randall Ricketts. Click to enlarge.
Randall Ricketts. Click to enlarge.
photo by Rob York

In the event of an outbreak of smallpox in the United States, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department will need 2,400 volunteers trained to help vaccinate citizens from the contagious and deadly virus, the Hamilton Place Rotary Club was told Wednesday.

Randall Ricketts, the emergency response coordinator for the health department, told the club that if a smallpox outbreak does occur, then the county is mandated by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to provide vaccination for all residents of Hamilton County over a period of 10 days.

The vaccinations would remain voluntary, but seven clinics across the county would be able to vaccinate at a rate of 5,000 citizens per day. The county will also provide buses to transport citizens to the clinics, Mr. Ricketts said.

The clinics would operate 24 a day for 10 consecutive days. The county hopes to have the clinics staffed by more than 200 volunteers working 12 hours shifts, Mr. Ricketts said.

“It’s a 10-day commitment, 12 hours a day, so it is tough,” he said. The benefits for volunteering Mr. Ricketts cited include the opportunity to serve, a chance to for volunteers receive the smallpox vaccine for themselves and their families before an outbreak occurs and a chance to learn more about bioterrorism defense.

Smallpox was eradicated from the United States in the early 1970s, Mr. Ricketts said, but because immunizations from the disease ceased 30 years ago, virtually all Americans are vulnerable to its effects if terrorists were to use it. The disease is spread through the air or through close contact. Victims suffer a painful red rash that leaves scarring and 30 percent of those infected die.

Possible ways terrorists could spread the disease involve sending an infected individual to a crowded area, such as through an airline flight traveling between dense metropolitan areas, Mr. Ricketts said. Once the rash the disease causes is visible, it is contagious, he said.

Types of volunteers needed at the clinics include:

*Triage: briefly question persons boarding transportation buses or entering clinics about any illnesses and referring them for medical evaluation if needed

*Forms distributors: passing out disease information, consent forms and pencils; assisting with completion of forms, directing patients and others with special needs to designated areas

*Video areas administrators: run patient information video, direct patients to vaccination area or to medical screening/counseling area if needed

*Clinic assistant: help patients, run errands, distribute supplies

*Supply managers and assistant managers: inventory, distribute and order supplies

*Traffic management: assist police and other security personnel in directing vehicle traffic

*Vaccine administrator: explain vaccine and side effects, administer vaccine and assist in providing care in case of allergic reactions. This requires vaccine administration training

*Interpreters: for volunteers fluent in languages other than English or possessing sign language skills

*Security: assist police in enforcing patient flow or controlling crowds.

Patients at the clinics would be given the cowpox virus as a vaccine, which causes mild side effects such as fever, soreness and an itch in most cases. “If side effects are moderate, you might have to take a day off from work,” Mr. Ricketts said.

Mr. Ricketts has been employed with the health department for nine months, and has been speaking to citizens of Hamilton County about the need for volunteers since January, he said. He hopes to receive more speaking engagements to inform citizens in the near future.

There is no official goal for when the volunteers are needed, but Mr. Ricketts said the county hopes to have the volunteers as soon as possible.

“We need them tomorrow,” he said.

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