NORTHCOM Prepares for Possible Pandemic
By Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., Feb. 1, 2006 U.S. Northern Command recently hosted representatives from more than 40 international, federal and state agencies for an exercise designed to provoke discussion and determine what governmental actions, including military support, would be necessary in the event of an influenza pandemic in the United States.
"We're building the knowledge base, trying to get ahead of the curve now as much as we can," said Gene Pino, director of NORTHCOM's training and exercise directorate. "We're here to explore (and) identify issues, identify challenges and identify concerns from each of our particular perspectives."
Officials consider a pandemic - a global epidemic - a possibility due to increasing numbers of people around the world contracting a life-threatening flu virus from birds. So far, humans infected with the avian flu virus have been verified in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Turkey and, most recently, Iraq.
However, no cases of human-to-human transmission have been confirmed, and no cases of avian flu, in birds or in humans, have been reported in the United States or Canada. The avian flu does not represent a widespread danger to human populations until the virus mutates into a strain that spreads from person to person, experts said.
Well before news headlines started reporting growing numbers of both sick birds and sick people, U.S. and Canadian military officials decided to focus joint exercise efforts on the pandemic influenza scenario. "Since that time, a tremendous amount of energy has been expended to prepare for the eventuality that this is a very plausible and a very dangerous threat," Pino said.
Exercise attendees analyzed topics such as public health care, maintaining civil order and providing continuity of government and private operations in case of widespread infection and worker absenteeism.
"NORTHCOM will not be running the show in the event of a pandemic," said Dave Wilkins, the NORTHCOM exercise facilitator. "We will be taking guidance and requests from other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, via the secretary of defense."
One most critical NORTHCOM mission during a possible pandemic is to keep the American public informed. The command will work with the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies at federal, state and local levels and will use a variety of methods, including traditional press releases and the agency's public Web site, to disseminate information, said Michael Perini, director of NORTHCOM public affairs.
"Staying informed is really the best preparation," Perini said. "What we want to do here is to be an integral part of the overall communications process and keep people informed so that they can be prepared."
Exercise participants agreed that the United States will not be able to keep an influenza pandemic from entering the country. Instead, the common goal of all agencies represented is to contain and mitigate the consequences of a pandemic as much as possible.
"We know it will have an impact," said Army Col. Joe Bassani, chief of the plans division in NORTHCOM's policy and planning directorate. "We can't stop the pandemic from having an impact. What we are concerned about is what the long-term impact is going to be on the homeland and what U.S. NORTHCOM can do to assist civil authorities in limiting that long-term impact."
The last influenza pandemics to strike the United States were in the 1960s, 1950s and 1910s. The most severe pandemic, in 1918-1919, caused at least 500,000 deaths in the United States and as many as 40 million deaths worldwide.
But "unlike previous pandemic influenzas, this will be the first time in the history of humanity that we actually have an opportunity to plan in advance how we would respond to a global pandemic," said Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Dan Bochicchio, vice chief surgeon of the National Guard Bureau.
About 40 percent of the U.S. work force would be affected in a pandemic, and the virus would probably spread through the population in six- to eight-week "waves," Navy Capt. Lynn Slepski, of the Department of Homeland Security, said. With so many people unable to perform their normal jobs, federal and state agencies plan to assist with critical national missions such as maintaining transportation and distribution systems to ensure people have access to food, medicines and other supplies.
Although NORTHCOM is prepared to take on more duties if requested by the president or secretary of defense, the command's primary mission will remain its "non-negotiable contract with the American people to defend the homeland," Bassani said. "We're here to support and defend the nation."
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen is assigned to U.S. Northern Command.)