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How tabletop “war games” prepared scientists years ago for COVID-19

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Hannah Allam, writing for NPR:

One day in early March, as the coronavirus was spreading across the country, Margaret McCown was in her office at the Pentagon figuring out how her staff could work from home.

As McCown went over the logistics, she began to feel a sense of déjà vu.

A pandemic. Government on alert. Schools and offices closing. It was a scenario she had seen before. Just not in real life.

“That was that uncomfortable moment where you find yourself a little bit living in your own war game,” McCown said.

McCown was a ‘war gamer’ at the National Defense University, a Department of Defense workgroup as part of the Center for Applied Strategic Learning.

The war gamers wanted to test the nation’s response to a foreign flu-like virus. Moving a step further, they wanted to test what the country could do knowing that efforts to stop a virus from entering the US would fail.

The group tested these theories in tabletop exercises just talking through the motions and in real-life simulations working through physical motions. The pandemic planned fell more by the wayside as terrorist-related threats took precedence.

McCown reports:

“All told, exercises moved away from what could be characterized as an emergency response understanding of the problem toward a more public health understanding,” McCown concluded in her report.

Vantage Point has conducted hundreds of similar exercises. A recent case study from earlier this year talked about our simulation of a record snowfall that impacted travel, power, and supply chains

After the pandemic, many agencies and organizations are likely to try and prepare for the next “what if”. Living through COVID-19 makes for real-time practice, but many things are left untested.

For healthcare providers, acquiring PPE has been a challenge. But what if in another pandemic PPE is in ample supply, but the virus spreads more rapidly in cattle, chickens, and hogs? What if that caused riots and wide-spread looting? This sort of scenario isn’t out of the question and needs to be prepared for.

Vantage Point has begun reviewing and modeling new exercises and simulations to train safety and healthcare providers. These new exercises can be put into training as early as this year. 

Private commercial and industrial enterprises can also benefit from tabletop exercises and simulations. We’ve seen how the pandemic can impact meat processing plants. But what if a more significant hypothetical food supply disruption occurs and meat processing became part of national defense? Or what if the pathogen were more from a biological terrorism event where decontamination and HazMat protocols needed to be implemented quickly?

As Allam’s reporting concludes:

No simulation can prevent a deadly new virus from snowballing into a pandemic. But [McCown] said there’s value in “creating that space for people to think through problems in a hypothetical set of circumstances.”

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