News & Events

TV 4’s I Team Reports on Readiness (or lack thereof) of Mass. ERs to Respond to Bioterrorist Attacks—MNA Stands Ready to Help System Prepare

Below is the text of a report that aired last night on WBZ-TV Channel 4 concerning the readiness of Massachusetts emergency rooms to handle a bioterrorist attack. MNA member and ER nurse Linda McMahon was featured in the broadcast. The MNA is working with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency on educating health care providers on how to respond to bioterrorist attacks. For information on upcoming continuing education programs, visit our CE page at The MNA has also testified before the legislature, and is advocating for a coordinated, comprehensive education program for front-line health care workers and for the formation of a Volunteer Emergency Nurse Corps., which would mobilize and train nurses across the state to be ready and able to participate in a well-coordinated plan to respond to a future event.

I-Team: ER Equipt

Monday, November 26, 2001 – 05:21 PM ETWBZ (WBZ)

Cambridge paramedics rush to the scene of a car accident at the Galleria Mall…Minutes later they’re at the aid of a woman in cardiac arrest. What began as a slow morning for the city’s medical units quickly teeters on overload.

"We’re hearing the Mt. Auburn just went on divert," says Paramedic Bill Mergandahl.

The emergency room at Mt. Auburn Hospital is reaching gridlock. That means patients seeking care will suffer delays and incoming patients will be diverted to other hospitals.

"We see hospitals on divert every single day," says Mergandahl.

Emergency room diversion is a critical problem here in Massachusetts. Why? Hospitals are suffering from economic anemia—bled dry by inadequate HMO and Medicaid reimbursements. Add a shortage of doctors and nurses and the prognosis is grim.

Last month, emergency room’s in the Boston area closed their doors for more than a 1,000 hours—compared to about 400 hours in the same month last year.

"The demand for services has exceeded the diminishing resources," says emergency room Dr. Alan Woodward.

And now doctors and nurses fear a bad flu season or worse—a bio-terrorist attack—could paralyze local ER’s.

³It may mean that we have to consider other environments to take care of patients. Whether it be hotels or armories or whatever," says Woodward.

Paul Jacobsen is with the state department of public health. "Dealing with the long term effects is something that were not capable of to the extent we should be."

Are doctors and nurses trained to deal with the new realities of a bio-terrorist attack?

Not according to a recent U.S. government report. It says: "dealing with a terrorist attack involving a biological or chemical agent is problematic in many hospitals. Inadequate training and planning is a major problem."

ER Nurse Linda McMahon says no nurse she knows of has been trained to handle a bio-terrorist event.

"There is an effort to expand that," explains Jacobsen. "Many of those individuals that work in the ER’s have been trained. We also recognize turnover and people come and go into those jobs and we do need to improve it and it’s not to the level it should be."

But our investigation found training for a bio-terrorist event is not mandatory, nor is there a standard training protocol.

McMahon says that’s something everyone should be concerned about. "If something unexpected happens we’d be very concerned about what would happen to the patients coming in."

That’s because right now there is no requirement a hospital has to prove its readiness to deal with a bio-terrorist event.

But in the State of Colorado—hospitals only have until December 31st to file detailed plans showing their readiness. Massachusetts¹s hospitals have no such deadline.

"We haven’t actually set firm deadlines but we are doing consistent assessments on where the hospitals are," says Ron Hollander, president of the Massachusetts Hospital Association.

"They need to get moving. They need to stop talking about it and they need to do it," says Nurse McMahon.

Officials at the Massachusetts Hospital Association say they’re working on it. After September 11th they began surveying hospitals to determine what kind of resources they need to respond.

In the meantime, the American Hospital Association is asking congress for $11.3 billion to help hospitals across the country prepare for bio-terrorism. But local officials say that’s not enough to take the system here off of life support.

by Stacy Neale