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Ready DC
Ready DC


Bioterrorism, or a biological attack, occurs when someone uses a biological agent with the intent to cause illness, serious bodily injury, or death. Biological agents can be bacteria, viruses, or toxins that can harm or kill people, livestock, plants, or crops. They can be inhaled, ingested, or enter the body through the eyes, nose, mouth, or through cuts in the skin. Some biological agents, such as anthrax, are not contagious. Others, like smallpox virus and measles, are contagious. A biological agent is extremely difficult to detect, and many do not cause illness for several hours to days. Attacks occur when there is a deliberate release of germs or substances to cause sickness. 

Read more information on biological hazards.


Before a Biological Incident

Use the following tips to prepare your home, family, and pets before a biological incident:

  • A biological attack may or may not be obvious. In most cases, local health care workers will report a pattern of unusual illness or there will be a wave of sick people seeking emergency medical attention. 
  • The public is often alerted through an emergency radio or TV broadcast, or some other signal used in your community. It’s important to Stay Informed through local radio, television or official social media accounts. Download the free HSEMA app or AlertDC to receive updates wherever you are.
  • Children and older adults are particularly vulnerable to biological agents. Unlike an explosion, a biological attack may or may not be detected quickly. As a result:
    • You may hear local health care workers speak about a pattern of unusual illness. 
    • You may hear an emergency notification on the radio or television. 
    • You may receive a telephone call or emergency response workers may come to your door. 
  • Consult your doctor and veterinarian to ensure all immunizations are up to date for yourself, your family, and your pets.  
    • Monitor your pets closely and be alert for unusual behavior. If your pet seems ill, make sure you are handling them with protective gear or clothing, such as gloves or long-sleeved shirts. 
  • Build or re-stock your Emergency Kit.
  • Make a Family Emergency Plan. Your family members may not all be in one place when disaster strikes.  It is important to know how you will contact one another, how and where you will meet and what you will do in case of an emergency. Plan how to communicate if you lose power.

During a Biological Incident

The first evidence of an attack may be when you notice symptoms of the disease or germ you were exposed to. It will take public health officials some time to determine exactly what the illness is, how it should be treated, and who is in danger. 

Follow these guidelines during a biological attack:

  • Get away quickly if you learn of unusual and suspicious material such as powders, human or animal blood, or bodily fluids. 
  • Stay Informed through local radio, television, or official social media accounts for information on signs and symptoms of exposure, medications or vaccinations that may be distributed, and medical help locations. Stay informed by following official District guidance. 
    • Public health officials may need time to provide information on the specific biological agent. It will take time to determine the nature of the illness caused by the biological agent, how it should be treated, who is in danger, and what precautions you should take 
  • Download the free HSEMA app or AlertDC to receive updates wherever you are.
  • Protect yourself by covering your mouth and nose with layers of fabric (such as a t-shirt, handkerchief, towel, or use several layers of tissue or paper towels) to filter the air but still allow breathing.
  • Use a face mask if available, especially if others around you are sick.

If you or a family member has been exposed, or assumed to be exposed, to a biological agent, follow these steps:

  • Stay away from others.
  • Call the authorities.
  • If the disease is contagious, expect to get a medical evaluation and be quarantined
  • Remove and bag your clothes and personal items.
  • Follow official orders for throwing away dirty (or contaminated) items.
  • Wash any exposed skin with soap and water.
  • Put on clean clothes.
  • Find medical help.

After a Biological Incident

Use the following tips for your home, family, and pets after a biological incident:

  • Pay close attention to all official warnings and instructions on how to proceed. The delivery of medical services for a biological event may be handled differently to respond to increased demand. 
  • Stay Informed through local radio, television or official social media accounts. Sign up for AlertDC to receive updates wherever you are.
  • Take note of all official warnings and orders on next steps. The delivery of medical services for a biological event may be more complicated than delivery of supplies such as food or water.
  • Talk with your doctor about what precautions make sense for you and your family, as well as your pets. Consider talking to a vet.
  • Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a full list of potential bioterrorism agents/diseases and proper treatments.
  • Communicate with family members and friends.
    • If you have a cell phone, call, text, email or use social media.
    • If you have access to a computer, use an online registry such as the Red Cross website, “Safe and Well”.
    • If you do not have a cell phone, use social media apps on personal gaming or tablet devices.
  • Once the “all clear” is given by authorities to leave shelter-in-place:
    • If you do not have access to any technology, go to your pre-designated meeting place for you to reconnect with family members or consider relaying information through friends, family or even your workplace.
    • Check on your neighbors. Help people who may require special assistance, such as infants, children, the elderly, or people with disabilities or access and functional needs.

Additional Resources: