Journalism students reports on mock biological attack

A biological agent � the bacteria that causes pneumonic plague � was released at a Rutgers University football game, and 7,000 spectators were exposed to the agent. By the time the state called a press conference, it had already claimed the lives of 200 New Jersey residents.

This is one of the scenarios the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) acted out with the help of College journalism students in order to test the Department�s readiness for such an attack.

Participants were asked to sit in on a mock press conference given by Jim Blumenstock, deputy commissioner of the Department of Health and Senior Services, and then write a story about it.

Robert Cole, chair of the journalism department, received a letter about the exercises from Tom Slater, the Risk Communication Manager at the Office of Communications for the DHSS, and passed it along to journalism students at the College. �To make it as true to life as possible,� Slater wrote, �we would like to recruit journalism students.�

Slater then continued, �The students� roles would be critically important to test our ability to communicate with the public,� and the students would be involved in �in-person or phone interviews, taking photos, shooting video footage and writing and packaging faux stories.�

The letter said the objective was also to �test (the DHSS�) ability to dispense medicine to large numbers of people in response to a medical emergency.�

Five College students were involved in a drill in Trenton at the Department of Health building on Oct.1. One was Laura de Zutter, senior communications major. �We were given background information beforehand about what was occurring and then asked to ask questions at the event,� she said. �It was a great opportunity to work with the DHSS and see exactly what they do and how the press works with them.�

Kevin Kelly, freshman English major, also participated. �After (Blumenstock) briefed us on the details of the fabricated scenario, we were to play the roles of journalists,� Kelly said. �We asked questions and tried to elicit as much data as possible from the commissioner � sufficient data to write a story on the staged event and submit it to the Department of Health.�

Kelly said the College was the only school represented. �Rutgers, the site of the fictitious bioterrorist attack, declined overtures from the (DHSS) to participate,� Kelly said he was told by Slater. Slater explained this to the students when they asked if any other schools were involved in the drills, Kelly said.

Kelly said it would be difficult to gauge from the exercise whether the state is prepared for such an attack. �I mean, all of the details were planned out on paper. The Health Department did seem to have a workable plan in place for the distribution of antibiotics from the state and national stockpiles, but again, a simulation such as this one will always be inherently limited,� he said.

Despite this, Kelly saw a great benefit in participating. �I�m very interested in governmental operations,� he said. �This was a unique opportunity to see a state regulatory body up-close.�

He said there was added incentive in getting extra credit for his Introduction to Journalism class for participating.

De Zutter said she had different reasons for participating in the exercise. �I am more interested in (public relations) and that is exactly what the DHSS does,� she said. �It was a great opportunity for me to learn a little more about PR in the public sector while also gaining valuable firsthand journalism experience � we each wrote an article that we submitted to Slater as well as to Dr. Cole. Plus, we all got free T-shirts.�