In a rare Sunday home mail delivery, nearly 40,000 Minnesota residents will go to their mailboxes May 6 to find an unusual delivery: an empty pill bottle representing a powerful antibiotic that would be delivered in the event of a bioterrorism attack.

The exercise unites the Minnesota Department of Health with the U.S. Postal Service. More than 300 mail carriers will participate in the test, fanning out across 4 neighborhoods in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Robbinsdale, and Golden Valley. They plan to reach 37,000 households in 4 ZIP codes. The overall goal would be to deliver preventive doses of medication to most people within the first 48 hours of a bioterror attack. The exercise will spark an intense period of evaluation, when health officials will see if the idea could work under the most catastrophic public health conditions. The tactic has been tested in Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle, but the Minnesota experiment will be its first full-scale test. A Postal Service spokesman said employee volunteers had to go through hours of safety training and preparation for the exercise including being fitted with protective masks. Local law enforcement officials will escort postal workers, as they would be in a true emergency. The biggest logistical concern for the health department and Postal Service has been informing the participating communities.

The results of the exercise will help determine the functionality of bioterrorism countermeasure home delivery during a major crisis. Antibiotics would primarily be dispensed at fixed locations following an incident, but authorities are looking for a means to reach those unable to leave their homes. The overall goal is to deliver preventive doses of medication to most people within the first 48 hours of any bioterror attack or infectious disease outbreak.