Tal Ehlers -- who has a background in law enforcement, hazardous materials and EMS -- is the emergency management coordinator for Uintah County in northeast Utah.
Unlike many other coordinators across the country, Ehlers’ county already has had an Ebola scare.
“We had an individual that we did monitor for possible exposure to Ebola after having traveled over from, I believe it was Liberia,” Ehlers said. “What we did was we got together and put together a plan in order to aid that person with medical assistance while at the same time mitigating exposure to additional individuals in the area.”
Ehlers said thhis event occurred before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with concrete guidelines. As more information emerged at the federal level, Ehlers’ department worked with the state health department, as well as local law enforcement and emergency responders, to update their practices.
Ehlers isn't so sure the area is prepared for a serious biological outbreak, however.
“I would say our residents are not prepared for an outbreak, much like the majority of the population throughout the United States,” Ehlers said. “I mean, it’s all you can do to get people to put together a 72-hour kit, let alone to prepare for a biological hazard.
“We can recommend that people distance themselves socially, quarantine if necessary," Ehlers said. "We can recommend that people shelter in place, but beyond public notification, it comes down to the willingness of the public to participate once those recommendations have gone out.”
Ehlers recalls that once the full protocols were released from the CDC, inventories of Level 2 hazardous-materials (hazmat) gear disappeared from stores quickly as “panic buying” set in, and supply was not sufficient to handle demand.
“I would gather from this that the majority of jurisdictions are not prepared for a biological hazard, based on the panic buying that occurred all of a sudden,” Ehlers said. “I think the panic buying is a good example of how little bio-preparedness there is.”
Ehlers said there has been no “grand measures” taken by the local government to specifically prepare the county’s 35,000 residents for a biological outbreak, and that the greater threat in the area comes from hazardous materials.