CDC Drill Revealed Problems with Pandemic Response Last Year

Officials from 15 states and several federal agencies participated in the exercise. The fake flu pandemic eerily mirrors the real coronavirus outbreak the U.S. is struggling with now, right down to some of the recommendations.

by Dave Altimari, Hartford Courant / March 20, 2020
A researcher at Protein Sciences reaches for a vial in a lab, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Meriden, Conn. The biotech company is currently researching a vaccine for COVID-19. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) AP

(TNS) -- A severe unknown flu virus is sweeping the world nearly 14,000 have already died, the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic and while U.S. officials know the virus is here they have no idea how many people have been infected because not enough testing has been done. 

Welcome to “Crimson Contagion” - a CDC-led exercise last summer that has almost eerily played out in real life not more than nine months later. The Courant obtained a copy of the CDC exercise Thursday, each page has the word “exercise” written in giant letters across the page and warns it is for “internal government use only.” 

Officials from 15 states from New Hampshire to Idaho and several federal agencies participated in the exercise. One of them was the Connecticut Department of Public Health, which had dozens of people involved in it -- many of whom are now leading the state’s response to the real deal COVID-19. 

The New York Times reported that a draft report from the exercise revealed widespread confusion among federal agencies taking part in the pandemic exercise. According to the Times, it was uncertain which federal agencies were in charge, hospitals struggled to find equipment and cities and states acted independently to close schools. 

The fake flu pandemic eerily mirrors the real coronavirus outbreak the country is struggling through now, right down to some of the recommendations such as - decrease social interactions whenever possible, imploring people to stay home when sick, prepare for prolonged school closures and the cancellation of mass gatherings. 

But DPH spokesman Av Harris, who particapted in the drill, said there are several things that have come up in fighting the real one that weren’t addresses in the summer one. 

“The issue of child care for priority people such as health care workers and first responders is a much bigger problem than anticipated,” Harris said. "We are still actively trying to solve that problem and it is just as critical as the lack of ventilators or the need for personal protection equipment." 

Harris said representatives of the states Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security also were involved in the drill and the state opened its emergency operations center just as it has now. Harris said at DPH people from Infectious Diseases, Preparedness and Response and administrators participated in the drill. 

Under the simulation, a flu labeled H7N9 originated in China and was believed to be brought back to the United States by a Chicago man. 

As with COVID-19, under the drill some parts of the United States experienced high 2019 H7N9 activity; other parts of the country weren’t widely affected. 

It also talked about testing, or lack thereof. 

“At this point in the pandemic, laboratory confirmed case counts represent an underestimate of the true burden of 2019 H7N9 related disease in the United States because of the large number of people sick and the fact that not all people infected are tested,” the report said. 

One of the biggest issues with the COVID-19 pandemic has been the United States slowly ramping up testing of its citizens. In Connecticut less than 100 people were tested in the first week of the emergency and it was only this week that several drive through testing facilities opened and more people could get tested. 

As a result the numbers of positive cases have risen steadily to 162 cases as of Thursday. Three people have died in the past few days and officials are warning the worst is yet to hit the state. While the majority of the cases, and all of the deaths have been in Southwestern Connecticut there are now positive tests in every county but New London County. 

Harris said the other issue that didn’t come up in the drill was communicating with employees working remotely. 

“Everyone is working from home now from all businesses and that’s caused some issues with WiFi overload,” Harris said. 

Harris said the drill lasted several hours and was a learning experience. 

“But I don’t think any person who was there and participated in the drill had any idea that in such a short period of time we’d see the real thing." 

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