CDC's Flu Games Simulate a Pandemic
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Atlanta today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finished a three-day simulation of a health-care crisis. Hundreds of experts took part to see how they would deal with the outbreak of a flu pandemic.
NPR's Richard Knox was asked to play a role and he sends this report.
RICHARD KNOX: CDC officials didn't know in advance what the plot would be. First, they find out the Asian bird flu virus has undergone a frightening change. In the real world, experts have worried about that for several years.
CDC director Julie Gerberding gives reporters the news in a mock press conference on day one.
Ms. JULIE GERBERDING (Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): I don't have good news today. Over the last few days, what we've been watching unfold is a situation where there's strong evidence that the virus and at least some cases has adopted to people and it's capable of being transmitted from one person to another.
KNOX: According to the fictional scenario, a foreign student at Georgetown University went home to Indonesia to visit his dying father. Unknown to everyone, the father was infected with the new flu virus. The son caught it from him. Before he felt sick, the Georgetown student boarded a flight home infecting two other passengers on route. Then according to the scenario, back in Washington the student infected two fellow members of the Georgetown swim team. They went on to a swim meet in New York City where they passed the virus to members of the University of Florida team.
Ms. GERBERDING: Right now, the states that have cases of H5N1 include Illinois, Maryland, New York and Washington D.C.
KNOX: Meanwhile in the CDC's Emergency Operations Center in the next building, several hundred staffers scrambled to answer Gerberding's questions: How much of the antiviral drug Tamiflu does the government have? How fast can it be sent to affected states?
With a vaccine already made against two strings of the Asian bird virus work against the new mutant?
A lot of attention quickly focuses on whether to screen travelers to prevent more infected people from coming into the country. CDC director Gerberding recommends to her boss in Washington, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, that all international flights be diverted to selected airports so health workers can take travelers' temperature and screen for symptoms.
CDC's public relations chief, Glen Nowak, warns Gerberding about the media's likely response. He predicts an onslaught of second-guessing by reporters.
Unidentified Man: We got 12 cases, if I heard you right, in the United States?
Mr. GLEN NOWAK (Public Relations Chief, CDC): If it's 12 cases. We're taking a bunch of aggressive actions. You're going to funnel people to 20 different airports. That's a huge disruption to international travel. So just be prepared for a lot of (Unintelligible).
KNOX: In fact, some scientists who attended, they say screening travelers would be a colossal waste of resources. And everyone here admits that it might not work. Dr. Martin Cetron is CDC's chief of quarantine.
Dr. MARTIN CETRON (Chief of Quarantine, CDC): The strategy is intended to buy time. It's not meant to be an ironclad fortress.
KNOX: CDC officials acknowledged that part of the reason for border screening is public relations. The public will expect it.
By this morning, day three of the simulation, there are encouraging signs. The number of flu cases has more than doubled but it hasn't exploded. The pandemic simulation continues this summer. The plot? Rumor has it, the new flu virus will reach Atlanta and knock out a third of the CDC's workforce.
Richard Knox, NPR News, Atlanta.
SIEGEL: And again, just to reiterate that Dick Knox was reporting on a simulated health crisis. It was about a pandemic that is entirely fictitious.