WASHINGTON – An unlikely group of health care professionals has stepped to the front line of Maryland’s fight against bioterror — the neighborhood pharmacists.
About 700 volunteer pharmacists and pharmaceutical technicians just finished the first phase of a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene training program that included ways to identify and treat biological agents as well as plans to dispense medications.
“Basically, after Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks, we realized if something had happened that was even more widespread, we would be in a difficult position receiving and distributing pharmaceuticals,” said Arlene Stephenson, deputy secretary of public health services.
The pharmacist training has been so successful that the state has decided to recruit and train nurses, physicians and mental health crisis counselors for incident response, using the pharmacy-training program as the “gold standard for use,” Stephenson said.
State officials have already recruited 800 nurses and 300 physicians, but are still developing a training curriculum.
The pharmacy program grew out of a bioterrorism committee that the state pharmacy board put together at the request of the state health department. The committee put out a call for volunteers, and 10 percent of the state’s 7,000 licensed pharmacists responded.
“The response was overwhelming. It was absolutely unbelievable,” Stephenson said. “These people must have big hearts.”
Howard Schiff, executive director of the Maryland Pharmacy Association, said good citizenship led the state’s pharmacists to participate.
“Sept. 11 illustrated dangers we face, and pharmacists feel it’s their civic duty to volunteer, to be prepared if — God forbid — it happens in our area,” said Schiff, who also went through the training program.
During last year’s anthrax attacks, health officials realized pharmacies could be mobbed in an emergency situation. If another crisis were to occur, Schiff said a temporary location, like a school or a fire station, would have to be designated where people could receive medications from trained pharmacists.
Each pharmacist who volunteered for the training program has been given an identification badge and his or her contact information has been put into a database for statewide use, Stephenson said.
The project’s goal is to have volunteer pharmacists coded in a system so they can be assigned to an area in need of assistance, said LaVerne Naesea, the executive director of the Maryland Pharmacy Board. In an attack, local health departments could call the state health department, which in turn would call the state pharmacy board to activate the volunteers to duty.
Along with the state health department and pharmacy board, the University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy and the Maryland Poison Center helped organize and conduct the training sessions.
The first two sessions were held during September in Baltimore, followed by mid-October sessions in Ocean City and Cumberland. The sessions gave basic background information on the types of agents that could be used in an attack and the type of medication available to treat them.
Volunteers were also told how to request and distribute an allocation of medicine and supplies from the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile.
“They covered things I didn’t worry about when I went through pharmacy school because we never thought we’d have to deal with them, but we have to deal with them now,” said Keith Broome, a Cumberland pharmacist who attended the training session. “It was just a really good education.”
Karen Kram, a Chester pharmacist, agreed the session was informative and important.
“I feel safer now,” she said. “I know there is a plan and I know we are prepared if anything should happen.”
Naesea said future training sessions are planned but details are still being discussed. They could include more information on topics from phase one, or a trial run in which volunteers would be required to make phone calls and think through a crisis-like situation, she said.
Since the first session, about 30 more pharmacists have volunteered and the board’s Web site is constantly recruiting for more, Naesea said. Ultimately, the plan developed through the training sessions will be folded into each county’s response plan, she said.
“The anthrax incident made us realize that we needed to be better prepared,” Stephenson said.
“Anything larger than that incident, I’m not sure we would have handled it as well,” she said. “We wanted to be better prepared and that’s what we’re trying to do.”