A plan that has been in the works for three years to establish the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School as an emergency center during a terrorist attack or outbreak of infectious disease hit a snag this week when concerns surfaced among Oak Bluffs leaders about the suitability of the site.
At an Oak Bluffs board of health meeting Tuesday, attended by health agents from all the other Island towns, Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake said he was concerned about the high volume of people who would head to the high school in an emergency during the summer. The chief said due to the road layout and potential for traffic backups, the police department lacked the personnel to watch over the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and Steamship Authority terminal as well as the regional high school.
The chief supports using the high school as an emergency site in the off-season, but said the site presents problems from May 15 to Sept. 15 when there are upwards of 75,000 people on the Island.
As part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, approved in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, communities across the nation are required to establish an emergency dispensing site in response to infectious disease outbreaks ranging from an outbreak of hepatitis A to a bioterrorism event involving thousands of people.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, requires every community to have a written plan identifying emergency sites in their jurisdiction.
Oak Bluffs emergency management coordinator Peter Martell said yesterday he agreed that the high school is inappropriate as an emergency distribution center in the summer.
Mr. Martell said he worked with Chief Blake to draft a traffic plan that directs people to the regional high school in case of an emergency in the off-season, and the Oak Bluffs School in the summer months. He said the plan is preferable to using the high school in the summer, and suggested that several different sites be established around the Island.
“The road structure can easily be clogged and overwhelmed. Just this summer when the [Lagoon Pond] bridge was stuck [open] it took only a half hour to back up traffic across the Island. If we have a situation requiring mass inoculations there could be 60,000 people headed to one area,” Mr. Martell said.
He continued: “If we establish a site nobody can get to, it will only cause a panic. Barnes, County, Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Roads will all be deadlocked — the problem would only get worse,” he said.
Mr. Martell said there are other options for local emergency dispensing sites, including the West Tisbury Agricultural Hall for up-Island towns and elementary schools in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven.
A report from the department of public health explains the guidelines for establishing such sites. “[A] worst-case scenario may require the ability to administer vaccine or dispense medication to 80 per cent of the population in the jurisdiction within two days; and the remaining 20 per cent of the population over the next day,” the report says.
The report recommends that communities with populations of less than 10,000 consider collaborating with neighboring communities to create regional sites. It suggests schools are preferable locations because they will likely be closed during an emergency; plus school personnel may be available to assist with the clinic, and schools are usually on established bus routes, have parking lots, long corridors, large classrooms, cafeterias and private offices.
“They also have other immediately available resources, such as tables and chairs, and offer physical structure that can meet most dispensing site needs,” the report says.
The Oak Bluffs board of health first approached the regional high school approximately two years about designating the building as the emergency dispensing site. Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James Weiss said yesterday he sent a letter to the board granting permission.
But some Oak Bluffs officials, including Ron DiOrio, chairman of the selectmen, said the school is not a good place to locate a dispensing site during the summer.
“How is our police department going to keep order at the hospital and at the [ferry] terminal, and then have time to manage between 50,000 and 100,000 people attempting to access one location? We need to come up with something that will work so we don’t have an absolute nightmare,” he said.
Health officials in other towns who have worked on the plan to establish the dispensing site for several years question why these concerns are surfacing now. An Islandwide group representing the six Island towns, the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head and Dukes County has been working on the plan since 2005.
There is general consensus among members of that group — including health agents and designated emergency management coordinators — that the high school is the best site.
Seanna Gretchen, the assigned emergency preparedness planner for the Vineyard, said she started working on the plan with Island officials three years ago. At that time, she said, it had already been determined that the high school was the best possible site. She said members of the group reviewed the logistics of the school and determined it could support large crowds during an emergency.
Ms. Gretchen said health officials conducted a training exercise during a flu vaccination in 2006 to determine if the site would work as an emergency distribution center. The test was successful; while the state department of health suggests each site should be able to immunize 500 people in an hour, volunteers at the high school during one stretch vaccinated approximately 350 people in under 20 minutes.
A similar exercise was conducted again last year during a flu vaccination at the high school and was equally successful, she said.
Ms. Gretchen said she hopes the towns can work together. “There is no doubt in my mind logistically this site works. I know there are problems with traffic. But it seems everyone can work together to think of ways to solve that problem,” she said.
Oak Bluffs health agent Shirley Fauteux said she supports using the high school as the sole emergency dispensing site “If we have two sites it means we have to divide our resources, and we already have limited resources,” she said.
Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole agreed. He said there is no perfect place to locate the center, and the high school is the best possible option.
“We looked at all the big buildings on the Island, this was the best option. We have resource restraints — we only have so many qualified people to deliver medicine and vaccines, and we can’t spread them out all over the Island,” he said.
The issue is expected to be discussed during the next all-Island selectmen’s meeting on Oct. 15.