Maya Sweedler

On Thursday afternoon, students at James Hillhouse High School trickled through the school’s indoor gymnasium to receive what could be lifesaving medicine: Tic Tacs.

Relabeled as doxycycline and ciprofloxacin, two types of antibiotics, the boxes of Tic Tacs represented a lighthearted element of what was actually a serious test of New Haven’s response to a public health emergency. Over 200 students enrolled in Hillhouse’s New Haven Law, Public Safety and Health Academy participated in the mass dispensing drill — the city’s first — for a simulated health emergency coordinated by local, state and federal agencies.

Hillhouse High School was the site of one of five similar drills that took place throughout Connecticut on Thursday. Agencies present included the New Haven Department of Health, the New Haven Police and Fire Departments, the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center and the Yale-New Haven Health System.

“[The drill] is the implementation of a state system in a New Haven scenario,” said Berit Mann, the site manager of the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center in West Haven. “If the state of Connecticut Health Department gets an alert, they’ll send it out to other departments. Then the Feds and state departments will coordinate with local communities.”

The Floyd Little Athletic Center at James Hillhouse High School was chosen as a dispensary due to its central location, large gymnasium and high population density, Mann said.

Students interviewed said they had been told the drill was meant to simulate a situation in which a pandemic broke out.

In advance of the drill, the municipal government crafted a unified command system in which representatives from the police, fire, health, safety and emergency operations departments jointly organize relief efforts, explained Rick Fontana, the deputy director for the City of New Haven Office of Emergency Management Operations.

“If you know anything about New Haven, it’s that we’re prepared,” Fontana said. “The police department, fire department, all of them — we’re always ready.”

Thursday’s drill represented just one scenario, Fontana said, adding that the city is equipped to deal with a host of similar situations. The exercise was not established in response to any particular incident, but rather as a test of New Haven’s ability to comply with state emergency response practices.

As opposed to the protocol for an emergency such as a fire or break-in, the Unified Command — which was illustrated on a whiteboard at the drill — allows several agencies to work together in an organized response. It is part of the standardized incident control system, a hierarchical system that is used to coordinate emergency responses.

With representatives from nearly all agencies present, the dispensing process took less than the three hours allotted for the drill.

The four-step process, which progressed efficiently thanks to the efforts of over a dozen volunteers, required students to fill out a form with identifying and health information, present the form to staffers, pick up medicine from one of several tables and turn in the form on their way out.

Though there were only four tables where medicine was being handed out, Mann said that in the event of a real emergency, additional dispensaries would be established in the gymnasium. In a state of emergency, a dispensary at James Hillhouse High School can provide medicine to approximately 250 local families.

In that situation, Fontana explained, antibiotics from one of the Centers for Disease Control’s three sites would arrive in Connecticut before being sent out to local governments for distribution. Yale University would distribute its own medicine to members of the Yale community, he said.

The Hillhouse New Haven Law, Public Safety and Health Academy began enrolling students in the 2014–15 academic year.