A group of high school students expecting to get a tour of the Kern County Public health facility got more than they bargained for on Feb. 6.

Soon after the group’s bus stopped at the facility, KCPH Director Matt Constantine boarded the bus to welcome the students, who were surprised to learn what they were really there for: There has been an e-coli outbreak, and it was up to the students to discover the source.

“Emergency Medical Services is reporting that local hospitals are experiencing an overwhelming influx of emergency patients,” a radio alert said. “Hospitals around Bakersfield are activating mass casualty protocols in response to a high number of patients coming into emergency rooms suffering from diarrheal illness.”

Students were immediately placed into Tyvek hazmat suits, split up into teams and let loose to explore several stations set up in and around the facility, including a hospital, restaurant, garden and auto shop.

There was no real outbreak, of course. It was a staged event aimed at giving students in the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce’s Youth Leadership Bakersfield program a life-like experience of how the department would handle an emergency.

“This is a time for us to show the community and these young students what Kern County Public Health does,” sad Michelle Corson, public information officer for the department. “These kids are getting a behind-the-scenes look of what the department does when an outbreak or emergency occurs.”

Students were thrown right into the deep end at the start. The first step was the hospital station, where the students questioned several KCPH employees acted as patients suffering from e-coli.

The department didn’t spare any details. Patients were shown with fake blood and vomit.

From there, the teams moved to other stations around the department. The event was capped with a press conference, where students had to answer questions from news outlets about the outbreak.

Valley Oaks Charter School student Marissa Cline said she was shocked to learn what the students had to do.

“I was a little panicked, because everyone was yelling for us to get off the bus. It was kind of scary,” she said.

Cline said she especially enjoyed getting to see the patients and questioning them.

“It felt so real. I was almost believing they were actually sick,” she said. “This has been really amazing. The fact that (KCPH has) gone to this much effort for us is really cool. I’m really impressed.”

Golden Valley High School student Alexis Aguirre also participated in the event, which she said she enjoyed.

“I think it’s really fun. It’s been a really good learning experience,” she said. “It’s been pretty nerve-wracking trying to figure out what happened.”

Aguirre said she joined the Youth Leadership Bakersfield program this year so she could learn more about the different career options that are available.

“I wanted to get involved to better improve my leadership skills, learn all the different professions that are out there,” she said. “It’s been really cool learning about about what people do and how they help the community out.”

The Kern County Public Health department is just one of the several city and county organizations that students in the Youth Leadership Bakersfield program get to visit. The goal of the program is to inspire future business and community leaders.

Patricia Marquez, chair of the Youth Leadership Bakersfield Advisory Council, said she hopes the students gain a better understanding through Feb. 6's visit of what happens when an emergency occurs.

“They see the kinds of services that a city like Bakersfield needs, how many people it takes to keep the engine running,” she said. “Ideally we never see a situation like this, but they get to see that these are things people have to be trained for and ready for. Now the kids know there are people in the community ready to take care of them.”

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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