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National Guard drills for major disease outbreak

National Guard troops have been walking through how they'd deal with a major deadly new disease.

Some 300 troops from the Maryland National Guard drilled this week for a deadly outbreak of a bird-flu-like disease that they envisage would spread panic in urban areas and require the killing of chickens by the barnful.

Troops from the 231st Chemical Company worked Saturday with local officials in Queen Anne's County and staff from the state agriculture department to practice decontaminating the machine that would be used to slaughter poultry in the hopes of stopping any infection from spreading. Normally, the soldiers would wear tightly sealed protective suits. Given the near 100-degree heat, they chose to work in T-shirts.

Col. Michael Bennett said the Guard had spent months preparing the for the drill. His team had sketched a terrifying scenario: Health workers in Indonesia report the first incidents of the flu spreading into humans in January, and it quickly spreads across the globe, reaching the United States by May through an infected passenger on an airline flight.

By July, the first death is confirmed in Maryland and people begin to flee urban areas, staying home from work in droves. So-called "poultry depopulation" gets underway.

"This is not a no-notice event," Bennett said. "We've seen this grow over several months."

While the scenario imagined a flu-like disease, similar measures could come into play in an outbreak of an illness like those caused by the Zika and Ebola viruses.

The exercise had three main components. Guardsmen practiced taking deliveries of vaccine stockpiles and keeping them safe. They also trained for vaccinating the Guard's troops, their families and other emergency crews while warding off civilians who might seek to gain access to the reserved supply.

Then on Saturday, Guardsmen gathered at the Queen Anne Armory to run through the decontamination operation with the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department and the Queen Anne's County emergency department.

The machine that would be used to kill the chickens in the event of an outbreak sat on the back of a truck outside the armory. A worker would unravel a long hose off the back off the truck and run it through the chicken barn. The machine then generates huge quantities of foam, filling the barn and suffocating the birds. A whole barnful could be killed in about 30 minutes.

Marilyn White, an official with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the state would identify which farms had been affected and work outward in an attempt to limit the impact on the Eastern Shore's economy.

"We don't want it to spread because we have this huge local population," she said. The foam truck would move from farm to farm, being decontaminated between stops.

Cleaning the machine itself is a fairly simple job, but Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, the head of the Maryland Guard, who observed the exercise Saturday, said working with local officials requires some forethought. The Guard takes time to get activated and has a culture that differs to that of local police and emergency responders, she said.

Short of an invasion, the Guard operates to support local authorities. But when National Guard troops were called up to help respond to rioting in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray last year, Singh recalled that then-Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts didn't seem to understand that he ought to have been running the operation.

"I actually had to say, 'Who is the incident commander in Baltimore?'" Singh said during a briefing on the exercise. "The chief at the time in Baltimore, I was like, 'Look, dude, you should be raising your hand that you're the incident commander' and he wasn't really sure."

Batts said he was surprised by Singh's comments. He understood that a policy group consisting of himself, Singh, the head of the state police, the governor, the mayor and their chiefs of staff "set the directions for the operational period."

Batts said any hesitation might have been at times when the governor and mayor and their senior aides had "stark disagreements."

"Those meetings got a little heated," Batts said.

Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department has updated its policies for handling major incidents since the riots, sparked after Gray died from injuries suffered in police custody, and that it is now clear who is in charge.

In recent incidents, Smith said, "the voice of who is in control has not been disputed."

Singh said in an interview that the National Guard's relationship with Baltimore is better now. In general, she said, she is looking for more ways to better coordinate with local leaders to prepare for future deployments and is looking at how she can strengthen ties through the Maryland Association of Counties, which will hold its annual conference in Ocean City next week.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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