Mohave County’s bioterrorism expert has a full plate

April 6, 2019

Melissa Hawthorne started as the Mohave County Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program Coordinator only a month ago, but has devoted her whole career to public health and emergency preparedness.

“The name of the job is misleading and pretty antiquated,” explained Hawthorn. “It comes from times after 9/11, followed by the 2001 anthrax attack.”

The attacks occurred over the course of several weeks beginning on Sept. 18, 2001. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and to Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, killing five people and infecting 17 others.

“Then the government decided we need someone on a local level who would be able to respond to such an incident,” Hawthorne said. But since then, the program, founded by a federal grant, has grown into the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program, which includes biological, chemical and natural disasters.

“Anything that has a public health component, including disease outbreaks,” Hawthorne said. “And only a tiny percentage of such incidents are intentional.”

Of course, attack attempts, real or fake, happen. Only a month ago, a suspicious envelope arrived to the Mohave County Administration Building. It turned out to be nothing, but things like that happen.

“You would open an envelope and see a powder,” Hawthorne said. “If either your eyes or hands are burning, you would call the police. And the police would call me.”

Every county in the U.S. has an emergency preparedness coordinator, even if they already moved away from “bioterrorism” as a front description of the position.

Every county also has an emergency operations center. Mohave County’s is located in the Administration Building in Kingman.

The room looks exactly like emergency operation centers in the movies.

There are maps, a satellite phone, CB radio, and everything a response team would need if they had to stay there for days. In her office, Hawthorne always keeps a backpack with everything she might need in case of an emergency.

She is the one leading the response, managing 15 other people, who do environmental health, finance, logistics and public information on a daily basis, but assemble here once a month to plan, and become an emergency response team whenever necessary.

“I just had a conference call with the state,” Hawthorne said. “We are preparing state-wide full-scale exercises for August.”

In Mohave County, one of the biggest challenges for such teams are wildfires. The challenge level increases when residents need to be evacuated and shelters need setting up. They train for every possibility, including mass casualties.

“We train for the worse and hope for the best,” Hawthorne said. “We continue to plan, review, and plan. And then make after-action plans.”