NASHUA — Health officials from many agencies joined forces on Friday to prepare for an emergency such as a large outbreak, mass casualty event or pandemic.
The exercise, which took place at Nashua High School South, was designed to increase the Greater Nashua medical surge capacity if the city’s two hospitals were maxed out with patients.
Plans for a mass casualty event may look good on paper, but it is still critical to practice and prepare for unknown emergencies or medical situations that could severely impact a community and its residents, said Kerran Vigroux, director of the city’s Public Health Department.
“This is a great opportunity for us to perfect those plans,” said Vigroux.
Friday’s mock emergency was a flu pandemic, overflowing local hospitals and forcing the creation of an Alternate Care Site at Nashua High School South. During the exercise, a group of about 45 individuals helped organize and set up the fake triage area, observation section and many beds for patients.
“This is not a hospital, so it is not exactly ideal,” said Ashley Conley, epidemiologist for the city. When regional medical resources are overwhelmed, it is important to have an alternate plan for patients who may need assistance, she said.
One of the initial challenges with Friday’s exercise was assigning oxygen to many patients. Although the written plan allows five patients to use one oxygen concentrator, when the device was actually set up, it could only provide oxygen to two patients at a time.
“That was a very important discovery. That information was very valuable to identify early on,” said Mark Hastings, director of emergency management with Southern New Hampshire Health Services.
As mock patients arrived with different symptoms and different severities of illnesses, volunteers were assigned to assist the sick individuals and assess their conditions. Physicians and nurse practitioners were on hand to help with the mock pandemic and prioritize the patients according to their needs.
Members of the Nashua Community Emergency Response Team helped serve as mock patients for the exercise.
The Greater Nashua Public Health Network hosted the exercise, and was joined by many regional partners, including St. Joseph Hospital, Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, the city’s Division of Public Health and Community Services, AMR Ambulance, Dartmouth Hitchcock of Nashua, the city’s Emergency Management Division, a local medical reserve corps, the Nashua fire marshal and others.
“We are so fortunate to have so many hospital partners here. This enables us to troubleshoot and really make our emergency plan the best it can be,” said Vigroux. “The Nashua region has really been in the forefront of this model where hospitals serve as the command and control of the operations.”
Vigroux stressed that hospital staff will actually be working an Alternate Care Site if the need really exists in the Gate City.
“In an emergency, they are going to be the first ones getting called, so they take these exercises very seriously. They know how important it is to practice these skills,” she said, adding there often isn’t time to read a written plan during a mass casualty event or pandemic.