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Alexandra Tempus, Associated Press, Published May 03 2012

Through rain, sleet, snow – and bioterror attack

ST. PAUL – After delivering mail for 20 years, Barb Watczak is excited to jump on a new assignment: key link in a chain to deliver thousands of doses of medicine in case of a bioterror attack.

Watczak is among the volunteers who will carry out an exercise Sunday to test postal workers’ ability to bring emergency medicine to homes in and around Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“We’re more involved with the community than people realize,” said Watczak, who has a route in Brooklyn Center. “It’s a mission.”

The U.S. Postal Service is teaming with the Minnesota Health Department to test a response to an anthrax outbreak or other medical emergency, a plan named “Operation Medicine Delivery.” The plan is for Postal Service volunteers to deliver an empty pill bottle and a flier in several languages to 37,000 households in the metro area.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said that in such rare emergencies most medicine would be dispensed from sites throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. But he called the postal delivery plan “an important tool in our public health tool box.”

“We’re thinking of this as an anthrax event,” Ehlinger said. “If it did happen we would need to get more than 3 million people in the metropolitan area antibiotics within 48 hours if possible. If we can’t do that, the result could be many thousands of deaths.”

Postal Service volunteers will leave from one location in St. Paul and another in Robbinsdale at 6 a.m. on Sunday. They will fan out to homes in four ZIP codes that include parts of St. Paul, Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, Golden Valley and Crystal: 55101, 55102, 55422 and 55411.

Postal Service spokesman Pete Nowacki said residents in those areas can expect to receive the delivery sometime between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. The flier contains information about the test and an instruction to recycle the empty pill bottle.

Nowacki said Postal Service volunteers will be accompanied by law enforcement escorts, just as they would in an actual emergency. Volunteers have been fitted for face masks but won’t be wearing them during the drill, he said. About 300 local postal workers have been trained for the delivery, but Sunday’s exercise will involve just a few dozen of those volunteers.

“They will be covering a lot of ground on that day,” Nowacki said. He added that the test areas have high-density housing as well as neighborhoods that include long walks between homes. “What we want to do is get a feel for what would happen if we had to go to a larger scale.”

Ehlinger said the neighborhoods also represent a mix of socio-economic and cultural demographics. He said in a bioterror emergency some populations, including seniors, the disabled and those with language barriers, could be more in need of medicine by mail because they may be less likely to make it to distribution sites.

“One mechanism is not going to get to everybody,” Ehlinger said. “There are going to be gaps.”

The drill is the first of its kind in the U.S. Plans for similar practice runs are in the works in Louisville, Ky., Boston, San Diego and Philadelphia. Jane Braun, director of emergency preparedness at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the Postal Service volunteers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area already have antibiotics in their homes to take in case they must leap into response mode.

Only after the drill happens will the health officials determine if it will be used in a real-life emergency, Ehlinger said.

“It’s practicing something,” Ehlinger said. “But’s it’s also gaining a lot of information.”