Sandia LabNews

New York City assignment exposes Sandia specialist to metropolitan bioterror mitigation


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One of the newer researchers on site, Isabelle Chumfong (8114), gained a new perspective during a recent unique assignment in which she spent six months working with New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to develop an in-depth understanding of and contribute to the city’s bioterrorism response planning and preparedness efforts.

The goal of the collaboration was to develop better strategies for collecting information about the impact of bioterror agent releases in real time, to both support bio-defense systems studies for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which partially funded her participation, and to improve New York City’s response activities.

Isabelle first came to Sandia/California in the summer of 2003. She then completed a master’s in chemical engineering at Yale during a year on campus through Sandia’s University Programs. In May 2005 she returned to the East Coast for the temporary assignment, in which she spent three weeks each month in New York and one week in Livermore.

The Sandia-DOHMH team focused on improving methods and approaches for post-incident environmental sampling, which typically would be used to confirm and characterize a bioterror event. Air and surface samples are collected to understand if an actual release has occurred, examine the properties and viability of the agent released, and determine the extent of contamination and population exposure.

“It was really enlightening to be there,” she says, because her exposure to the real-world concerns in the public health department put into perspective some of the issues and priorities of end-users of Sandia research.

She got to see how decisions are made and goals overlap, for instance, with public health officials dedicated to preventing and treating illness and law enforcement being concerned about obtaining forensic evidence of a crime.

She visited areas of the city being considered for sampling, noting the possibility of operational complications due to urban grime and unfavorable weather conditions, as well as the potential reaction of passersby to hazardous materials teams suited up in protective gear, an eye-catching sight that would affect how potential threats are communicated to the public.

She says her New York colleagues’ special expertise is appreciated and they are called by other cities because they are ahead in planning responses to terrorist attacks. “New York City has actually been attacked,” she notes, “so the idea [that a bioterror attack] could happen is much more real to them.”

The preliminary study examined the city’s responsive architecture for bioterrorism events and proposed a methodology, based on modeling, for identifying promising sites for environmental sampling. These sites were chosen by analyzing an extensive set of agent release scenarios deemed most likely by New York City law enforcement and emergency management agencies. Initial conclusions from this work were recently presented to city officials, who were supportive of follow-on analysis and product development.

Part of the work involved modeling different hazard footprints based on different bioagent release scenarios using historical weather data, undertaken with Tony McDaniel (8367) and Todd West (8114). She says the archived footprint data set can be mined for other applications and the study method can be readily applied to other cities.

Collaborators in New Mexico, Gary Brown (6245) and John Brockmann (1517), carried out related experimental work, releasing simulated bioagents in test chambers to approximate the limits of sampling methods on various surfaces, which were then incorporated into the model.

Isabelle says she appreciated learning what day-to-day questions key decisionmakers need answered, based on their goals and responsibilities. The concept of sending someone to the city agency came about early last year in a Bay Area meeting of public health, law enforcement, and environmental officials who wanted to better understand the potential hazards of bioterror releases and how to gather information about them in real time. Decisionmakers at DOHMH were eager for assistance, having heard of Sandia’s initial modeling of plumes that might be generated from releases of a bioterrorism agent.

“Our studies for DHS are ultimately directed toward enhancing the preparedness and capabilities of end-users who are responsible for responding to emergencies,” says Isabelle’s manager, Susanna Gordon. “It is tremendously beneficial to work closely with agencies such as these to better understand needs and priorities that are paramount in creating effective operational plans and tools to deal with new threats, such as bioterrorism.”

Isabelle frequently visited New York City while attending college just 90 minutes away, she says, so it was appealing to spend several months there exploring the city as a resident. Flying back once a month helped maintain continuity with her project team and life here.

During her assignment, she sat in the department’s Bureau of Communicable Disease, in a section devoted to mitigating the consequences of bioterrorism. There she was able to interact with public and environmental health professionals, as well as the New York Police Department and the city’s Office of Emergency Management.