If there is one element of the COVID-19 pandemic that has remained consistent as the crisis has unfolded it is confusion – about the actual fatality rate of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, how many people really have contracted it, and what the government’s seemingly ever-changing policies in response to it are at any given moment.

Perhaps to alleviate some of that confusion, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has cancelled a “Preparedness Full Scale Exercise” that was to be called Outbreak Express and would have simulated something very much like the novel coronavirus pandemic, which was planned for mid-April.

“KDHE has been planning for about two years a flu exercise and they’re required to do this by the feds, it’s a grant-funded thing,” said Lee Miller, public health coordinator for an eight-county Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) Region known as the “Lower 8 of Southeast Kansas” at the March 12 meeting of the Crawford County Local Emergency Planning Committee.

“I don’t expect the date to change, so just kind of in your public messaging be prepared around mid-April to field rumors about ‘Oh my gosh, we had this gigantic thing called the Outbreak Express,’ and have the public confuse that with the coronavirus issue,” Miller said. “Just a heads up, pencil it in.”

Crawford County Health Officer Rebecca Adamson also commented on the planned exercise at the LEPC meeting.

“It’s fake; it’s not real,” she said.

“It’s going to be mostly like emailing, calling, it’s kind of just going to be a simple thing I think, and I don’t know how big it’s going to be with all of this because KDHE may not have a lot of manpower to do the whole full-scale,” Adamson said.

The final planning meeting for Outbreak Express, which had been planned for April 15 to 17, was apparently March 11, the day before the LEPC meeting. It has since been cancelled, however, according to KDHE.

“The exercise was cancelled due to the real world pandemic,” KDHE Director of Communications Kristi Zears said in an email Tuesday. “All parties were notified.”

In response to a question seeking clarification on when exactly the decision was made to cancel the exercise, Zears said the plan was dismantled in phases.

“Components were cancelled or waived piece by piece beginning March 4 through March 25,” she said in an email.

A web page about the exercise on KDHE’s website on Tuesday said simply that the state “has received approval from both HPP [Hospital Preparedness Program] and PHEP [Public Health Emergency Preparedness] that we do not need to do a full scale exercise this year. All plans are canceled.”

Some information is available online, however, about what the exercise would have involved.

“Leading up to the exercise will be scenario-related updates disseminated to stakeholders to simulate the progression of the flu becoming a pandemic situation,” a document from KDHE’s website about the Outbreak Express exercise notes.

“As updates are sent out, pdf versions will be available on the exercise web page for reference. Planning team members cannot share exercise information beyond what is shared to all stakeholders by KDHE Preparedness,” it notes.

The exercise was developed using “Input from trusted agents who can speak to the needs and special circumstances of the various sizes of health departments to keep the exercise manageable and realistic,” the document notes.

A previous version of the KDHE web page, meanwhile, which now states simply that the exercise is cancelled, but was saved in December 2019 using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, included links to various documents, although the document list was “not an inclusive list of documents one may need as many plans are confidential to each agency,” it noted.

A “training information” page associated with Outbreak Express, meanwhile, included links to a “Public Information Officer Awareness” training course apparently sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.

“The Public Information Officer Awareness Course (IS0029) is designed to familiarize participants with the concepts underlying the PIO role,” a course description notes. “This course can provide a basic understanding of the PIO function for those new to the position. Additionally, it can provide those in executive level roles the necessary knowledge of PIO roles and responsibilities during an emergency.”

While Adamson said March 12 she thought the Outbreak Express would simply involve calls and emails to simulate a pandemic, another training course “live event” associated with the exercise on “Security Activities for MCM Dispensing,” which apparently took place in November at the Shawnee County Sheriff's Training Center in Topeka, also involved law enforcement officers and “crowd management” training. MCM appears to stand for medical countermeasures.

“The best possible outcomes for an infectious disease medical incident rely on effective coordination of a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional resources,” the course description notes. “Law enforcement provides critical security support during an infectious disease disaster. It is important that law enforcement maintain proper procedures and protocols associated with distribution and dispensing of Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) materiel to persons. During an infectious disease disaster, law enforcement has a crucial role in the assessment of potential threats and vulnerabilities of locations, maintaining security of the point(s) of dispensing, managing traffic flow and the flow of persons through dispensing lines. The purpose of this course is to increase the readiness of the law enforcement community for an infectious disease disaster.”

After completing the course, participants were expected to understand the importance of objectives including “Security measures, specific to each medical countermeasure dispensing and vaccine administration site to ensure personnel safety, product security, and crowd management during an incident,” according to a list of bullet points included with the description.

In addition to many KDHE officials and medical personnel, members of the planning team for Outbreak Express apparently included Kansas Highway Patrol officers as well as a representative of the U.S. Marshals Service.