It seems like an otherwise normal day.
Classes drag by, the area surrounding the Bell Tower is crammed with people and Broad Street is busy with students getting on and off SEPTA buses and trains.
But something is different.
The waiting room at Student Health Services is filled with sick students.
Some complain of loss of appetite and swallowing and vision problems, others about fevers, headaches and body pains.
This would be the scene at Temple if the campus were struck by an act of terrorism.
Bioterrorism is not a matter of emergency response, said David Jaslow, an emergency physician at Temple University Hospital. It is a slow spreading attack that goes unnoticed for days and weeks, as people go about their normal lives.
How do Temple officials plan to respond if such an event were to happen?
Campus Safety Services Operations Manager Michael McFall is in the process of creating the University’s emergency plan.
“Right now the University is very safe,” McFall said. “I’m assessing the risks for terrorism and natural disasters and making plans to bring the University back to normal should something occur.”
McFall said that Temple’s population size requires for an off-campus location to hold students and faculty members in the case of an attack. He expects to complete his analysis within the next month and submit it for University approval.
“The most important things are intelligence gathering and networking,” he said. “We have not received any terrorist threats that I’m aware of since Sept. 11. There were suspicions of anthrax tainted letters, but that didn’t happen.”
How does the University’s medical staff plan to respond?
“We don’t have an individual plan,” said Illene Moore, director of Student Health Services. “But if a student has an illness we can handle, then we’ll handle it. If they have a higher level of illness, we transfer them; this wouldn’t be a site where very sick people would be.”
But for the five physicians and two nurses that handle student illnesses from Tyler, Ambler, Health Science and Main campus, it doesn’t seem like it would take much to overwhelm them.
Moore said the staff would do the best they can to keep up.
“Nurses will do the evaluations, while the doctors give care,” she said. “The whole staff will be plugging away and doing whatever needs to be done, but if they’re sick here, you can be sure they’re sick at Ambler, too, and in that situation we’ll contact the appropriate outside people for help.”
Student Health Services sees 30,000 sick students a year, Moore said. The closest the staff comes to chaos is flu season, where they see 130 sick students daily.
“We’ll have periods where we have a very high volume of sick students,” Moore said. “Right now we’re all pretty good handling-wise, however, you can prepare for the earthquake all you want, but once it hits, the only thing you know for sure is it’s going to be very difficult.”
Moore said the key to handling a bioterrorism attack is communication and coordination between every aspect of the health system.
At the hospital, officials hold monthly attack drills to practice their responses, said Lily Lodhi, director of Environmental Health and Safety.
Hospital officials also offer a first responder’s training course every two months to teach the community how to help others and protect themselves, Lodhi said.
In the event of an overwhelming number of victims, hospital officials have an emergency plan detailing how each department will respond.
Rusty Frisch, the hospital’s director of Biomedical Engineering, is in charge of the emergency medical equipment used to treat patients.
Frisch described the action that would be taken if there were a widespread attack: First the victims would be decontaminated in a portable shower unit outside the hospital, before the medical staff could begin treatment. The hope is the outside decontamination will prevent the spread of disease throughout the hospital. If needed, the outside air supply can be cut to prevent airborne germs from entering the hospital.
But will getting to the hospital be a problem?
Rich Maloney, a SEPTA spokesperson, said no.
SEPTA officials have daily experience with chaotic scenarios, he said. Traffic jams and equipment breakdowns on rail and subways help them prepare for the worst.
“This is something we don’t have to be prepared to do because we do it everyday,” he said. “We know by well-oiled experience what we have to do.”
He said that on Sept. 11, officials recognized that people were going to move quickly to get home, and in the two hours following the attacks, they organized the needed personnel and equipment to provide evening rush hour service at 11 a.m.
“We feel that in terms of practical knowledge and experience, we are fairly well prepared,” he said.
But for Jaslow, who designed the hospital’s emergency plan, the idea that anybody is truly prepared is false.
“Nobody is really prepared,” he said, “because nobody has ever seen a bioterrorism attack on U.S. soil. Ever.”
Jaslow said knowledge is the best weapon for fighting bioterrorism.
Bioterrorism is about public health, he said. Quick recognition of symptoms is essential to fight a disease. “The rate of diagnosis needs to be compressed into days and hours, not weeks.”
Terrorists want a weapon that doesn’t have a treatment, spreads quickly and kills a lot of people, Jaslow said. These germs are easy to make, but difficult to deliver. “It is very complicated technology, the only way to spread it is to put it up in the air.”
However, if bioterrorism attacks were to occur, the fallout would be unthinkable, Moore said.
“Sept. 11 was a catastrophe, but under 4,000 lives were lost,” Moore said. “The debris is what really created the problem. But if you’re talking about smallpox, then 4,000 is peanuts.”
Chris Powell can be reached at email@example.com