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Bioterrorism response is in the works

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Minnesota's public health officials say some parts of the state are more ready than others for a bioterrorism attack but, all in all, the state is prepared.

"We are far more ready than we were a year ago," said Jane Norbin, head of bioterrorism planning for the St. Paul-Ramsey County Health Department.

The assessment comes as federal officials released a blueprint Monday for state and local agencies to set up mass-immunization clinics if terrorists unleash smallpox in the United States.

Norbin and her counterparts throughout the state have been working for months on contingency plans to vaccinate the entire population within a matter of days, if necessary. For example, one plan would turn the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul into a mass clinic for smallpox vaccinations.

Dr. Harry Hull, the state epidemiologist, said there are parts of the state that are more ready than others. But, he added, "If we had an attack now or next week, we'd probably be able to pull it off."

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The "Smallpox Vaccination Clinic Guide," which was prepared by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lays out in detail what it would take to vaccinate millions of people in a short time.

To vaccinate 1 million people in 10 days, it would take more than 4,000 people working 16 hours a day at 20 clinics. Nationwide, vaccinating all 288 million Americans would mean creating more than 5,700 impromptu clinics, in any place from high schools to major-league ballparks, and recruiting more than a million nurses, doctors and others to staff them. Federal officials say it could cost as much as $3 billion.

"It's going to take a lot of people to do the whole population," said Norbin, whose team has been working for more than a year on contingency plans in Ramsey County. But she and others say the plans are starting to take shape.

"It would be messy, but we could get it done," said Mary Jo Fritz, supervisor of public health emergency preparedness for the Hennepin County Community Health Department.

Officials also have drawn up detailed plans for what amounts to a huge exercise in assembly-line medicine.

In Hennepin County, planners estimate that they would need 6,500 people -- working round-the-clock for four days -- to immunize almost 1 million people, Fritz said.

Although it may seem mind-boggling, Hull and other health officials note that it's been done before. In the late 1940s, New York state vaccinated about 6 million residents within a short time after a man came down with smallpox. The campaign worked, Hull said: The outbreak was contained, with only 11 cases and three deaths.

Hull noted that rural areas have done less planning than the Twin Cities to prepare for a bioterrorism emergency.

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"They're just beginning," he said. But he said the state is far better prepared than a year ago. "We've been working for months now on making sure that we develop plans so that every person in Minnesota can be immunized with smallpox vaccine, should that become necessary."

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