Twin Cities to test mass delivery of emergency meds by mail

Editor's note: This story was revised on Mar 28, 2012, to correct the list of other cities that are working on medication-delivery programs similar to the one in the Twin Cities.

Mar 21, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – Mail carriers will deliver empty pill bottles to about 35,000 homes in Minneapolis and St. Paul on May 6, in the area's first test of a program to quickly provide antibiotics to the populace in the event of an anthrax attack or similar emergency, according to the US Postal Service (USPS) and health officials.

The carriers will make the Sunday deliveries to four zip codes, two in St. Paul, one in Minneapolis, and one in Minneapolis suburbs, said Peter Nowacki, USPS spokesman in Minneapolis.

"People will get an empty bottle, similar to what would be used in the real thing," Nowacki told CIDRAP News. "There'll be an information sheet explaining what it's all about, that it's just a test to see how well it works. It'll have links and phone numbers for more information."

The test is "Operation Medicine Delivery," the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), which is involved in the program, said yesterday in a statement on its Web site. "The purpose is to see how fast postal teams can deliver medicine to homes in an emergency."

"The May 6 event is only a test! We have no reason to believe a real emergency will happen that day—or that one is imminent," it adds.

The Twin Cities area is one of five large cities around the country that are working on federally funded programs to use the USPS to respond to a bioterrorist attack. Others are Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Louisville, Ky., according to MDH officials. Officials in Louisville were scheduled to make an announcement today about the program there, according to a Louisville Courier-Journal story.

The initiative has been in the works for several years, having been spurred primarily by the anthrax letter attacks of 2001.

In the Twin Cities, a plan to use mail carriers to delivery medicine in an emergency has been in place since early 2010, the MDH statement notes. The plan is a joint effort of the health department, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the USPS, and local public health, law enforcement, and emergency management agencies.

In the May 6 exercise, mail carriers, accompanied by law enforcement officers, will deliver the simulated medication packages only to residences, not to post office boxes or businesses, the MDH said. Those who receive the packages won't need to do anything, other than recycle the empty bottle.

The targeted zip codes and areas are:

  • 55101 (downtown St. Paul)
  • 55102 (West 7th Street and Fort Road in St. Paul)
  • 55411 (the North Side of Minneapolis)
  • 55422 (parts of Robbinsdale, Golden Valley, and Crystal)

The MDH has a $200,000 budget for the exercise, with the funds to be provided by HHS, said MDH spokesman Buddy Ferguson in St. Paul. That does not include any funds committed to the project by the USPS, he explained.

Nowacki said Boston, Seattle, and Philadelphia have run limited exercises to test the concept in a preliminary way, but the Twin Cities drill differs in that it will involve a fully developed team of volunteers who have been trained and would be prepared to deliver medications in a real emergency.

"This is the first metro area in the country to recruit a full complement of postal volunteers for this program, and set up a fully developed postal delivery system," the MDH statement said.

More than 300 postal workers have been recruited and trained for the Twin Cities program, the statement noted. It didn't specify how many will participate in the May 6 test.

In a real emergency, health agencies would not attempt to use home delivery to get medications to all 3.2 million Twin Cities residents, the MDH explained. Most people would get their supply by going to a special "medication center." Several centers would be set up, with locations listed on the MDH Web site.

"Postal delivery might be used in some densely populated parts of town, to take pressure off the medication centers," the department said. The medicines will be free of charge.

See also:

MDH information about the exercise

Mar 21 Courier-Journal story

Aug 4, 2010, CIDRAP News story "Twin Cities mail carriers prepare to deliver biodefense drugs"

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