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NORMAL — Sara Keene was angry.

She was frustrated that she'd been waiting in line for medicine and yelled at McLean County Health Department nurses.

"I was portraying a drunk, 22-year-old college student who had lost her boyfriend in an accident and was upset that she'd been standing in line," Keene, 36, of Bloomington explained later. "I became belligerent."

Keene was among 150 community volunteers who participated Friday in a full-scale exercise of a mass distribution of medication at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena.

Volunteers went through the arena several times, each time portraying someone with a different scenario. The goals were to drill public health professionals, emergency responders and community members in the event of a disease outbreak or bioterrorism attack in which 500 to 700 people needed to be treated quickly, explained David Hopper, health department emergency preparedness coordinator.

About 150 representatives of the health department, McLean County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and Illinois State University — with support from agencies including American Red Cross, The Salvation Army and Normal Fire Department — participated in the exercise.

"It's a good thing for our community to know how to do this," said Keene, an ISU senior and mother who works several jobs. "I thought (doing) this was a good way for me to give back to the community."

Anthrax is a serious infectious disease that can be life-threatening when spores are inhaled. But antibiotics can prevent anthrax from developing in people who have been exposed but have not developed symptoms.

In the exercise, volunteers portrayed residents coming to Redbird Arena to receive medicine. Volunteers were triaged outside and those portraying people with anthrax symptoms were not allowed into the arena and were directed to go immediately to their health-care provider.

Others were allowed into the arena. People with functional needs — such as those portraying people with visual, hearing and mobility impairments — were directed to a smaller room to be dispensed their medicine. Others were directed to the arena floor to be screened and given empty pill bottles to simulate being given antibiotics.

Before leaving the area, participants returned empty pill containers.

In one scenario, Keene portrayed a woman who spoke little English. "No one knew how to help me," Keene observed, noting that language interpreters would help in a real disaster response.

"This is a learning experience," Keene said. "No one expects this to happen. But this (exercise) helps to ensure that we are ready if this does happen."

Chuck Hartseil, 66, of Normal portrayed several people, including a Spanish speaker with limited English.

"It's fast," he said of how public health professionals responded. "But I wonder what it would be like if there were thousands of people and if they were afraid."

"We're working through issues," said public health nurse Sue Durham, who was dispensing medicine in the functional needs area. "We're learning what to do in a real-world emergency. I want to be prepared."

Another community volunteer, Celeste Brennan, 61, of Normal, said "It's important for all of us to understand what can happen in a disaster and how to keep our families safe."

Brennan thought the exercise went well but said that in a real emergency, more medical professionals would be needed.

The exercise was successful, said Hopper, McLean County EMA Director Bob Clark and ISU Emergency Management Director Eric Hodges. In a real emergency, more staff would be needed, Hopper said.

"A prepared community is a more resilient community," Hopper said. "A more resilient community recovers quicker."

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Contact Paul Swiech at (309) 820-3275. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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