May 7, 2003 — Three local public health employees received smallpox vaccines Friday, accepting the responsibility of being the first line of defense against a bioterrorism attack.
The trio — each a health worker at the Warm Springs Health & Wellness Center — will be crucial personnel in the event of an outbreak of the deadly virus.
Although smallpox was thought to have been eradicated two decades ago, several nations have it in laboratory vials. And terrorism paranoia since Sept. 11 has accelerated the push to vaccinate medical personnel nationwide.
On Friday, 30 individuals from hospitals and health departments throughout Central and Eastern Oregon received vaccinations at the Deschutes County Human Services Building in Bend.
State health officials also used the opportunity to show a mock vaccination to media, hoping the region’s news outlets would disseminate smallpox information and dispel myths.
Maria Sistrom, the state Health Department’s bioterrorism project manager, said health-care personnel in 20 of Oregon’s 36 counties are receiving vaccinations. Each county’s public health department and hospitals statewide were asked to develop smallpox response teams, she said.
If a case is reported, those teams will vaccinate the infected person and anyone they might have come in contact with. This process is called “ring vaccinations,” a strategy that focuses on containment.
“If someone is vaccinated within three days, they most likely won’t get smallpox,” said Patty Thomas, Jefferson County’s bioterrorism and communicable diseases coordinator.
The Jefferson County Health Department hopes at least three more local nurses will receive the vaccine in June, possibly employees with the department and Mountain View Hospital. Health officials would then have six workers ready to distribute the vaccine.
“That’s actually pretty good for the population in our area,” Thomas said.
If an infection were reported in Madras, that wouldn’t necessarily mean the whole city would have to come under the needle, health officials emphasized.
“It’s not the best thing to scramble and try to vaccinate everyone in the country,” said Richard Leman, an epidemiologist with the state’s bioterrorism preparedness program.
During an outbreak, those already vaccinated would be responsible for administering the shots to emergency response agencies, such as police or hospital staff. Those, in turn, could help distribute the vaccine on a wider basis.
Friday’s vaccinations came after months of delays. Section 304 of the federal Homeland Security Act, which went into effect in January, contained ambiguous information regarding workers’ compensation, liability and loss of pay.
That mattered to state health officials, because one in 25,000 who receives the vaccination experiences serious side effects. One in 1 million people die from it.
Mark Strong, a pharmacist, and his wife, Donna, a nurse, each said they didn’t worry about the potential consequences.
“I’ve had it three times already,” said Mark Strong, shortly before receiving the vaccine for the fourth time. “And my arm hasn’t fallen off.”
The married couple — both work in Warm Springs — are part of the federal Commission Corps Readiness Force. That means they could be deployed anywhere in the nation if directed by the Office of Homeland Security.
Children stopped receiving smallpox vaccinations in 1972. Mark Strong said he was given the vaccination when he was a child, a second time when he was a teen and again when he entered the military.
Anyone giving the vaccine must already have received it themselves.
State health officials hope to have at least 800 people vaccinated statewide, but intense screening tests and other concerns from health departments are slowing the process, Sistrom conceded.
“People seem to be somewhat reluctant to have the live virus behind their walls,” Sistrom said.
A federal grant is helping counties pay for the vaccines.
Thomas, Jefferson County’s bioterrorism coordinator, said the local smallpox response team could get its marching orders from the federal government, too, in the event of an outbreak.
“But if there is an outbreak, we’re not going to sit here and wait for a phone call,” Thomas said.