Health network in place to guard against bioterrorism at the Salt Lake City Olympics

Tuesday, February 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ When the Olympics open in Salt Lake City this week, a complex network will be in place to detect a bioterrorist attack quickly, treat the victims right away and stop any outbreak before it mushrooms into catastrophe.

The government's plans include moving part of the national drug stockpile to an undisclosed location near Salt Lake City, so that anthrax-fighting pills and smallpox vaccine can be dispensed immediately.

The packed stadiums and the worldwide attention could make the Olympics an attractive target to terrorists. But officials promise the Games will be the safest ever and have spent more than dlrs 300 million to make sure.

``It's almost a planned public health emergency,'' said Dr. Patrick Meehan, who is leading Olympic preparations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ``You have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people descending on a city.''

All those people will be spread out over six Utah counties. Health officials worry a group of people could become infected, then travel in all different directions, making an outbreak difficult to spot and bring under control.

So Salt Lake City organizers, working with the CDC, set out to dramatically speed up surveillance, the term public health workers give to monitoring all sorts of data for early warning signs.

Usually, surveillance means monitoring reports of confirmed diseases. But at the Olympics, epidemiologists will scour a stream of data from hospitals, pharmacies and Olympic venues, looking for anything suspicious _ odd respiratory problems, digestive illness or skin complaints, for example _ in hopes of spotting an attack more quickly.

``Once you start seeing cases, the amount of time you have left to respond is crushingly small,'' said Dr. C.J. Peters of the University of Texas at Galveston, a former top CDC official. ``So you'd better get the first case.''

About 500 staff members from the Utah Health Department and smaller local departments form the backbone of the bioterrorism preparedness effort in Salt Lake City. The CDC is sending several dozen staff members, including some of its ``disease detectives.'' They will form a corps that has been dubbed Epicenter.

The state of Utah had been planning its safeguards against Olympic bioterrorism for years. But Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks ``created a greater sense of national priority,'' said Dr. Scott Williams, the state's Olympic health officer.

``This is a much more intense level of surveillance than any state or local health department does routinely,'' he said.

Epicenter will have to pay even closer attention because the Games fall near the peak of flu season. Hoping to avoid confusion between flu and the inhaled form of anthrax, officials have asked hospitals to beef up their flu tests.

For the Olympics, the CDC is sending part of the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, a stash of medical supplies stored in eight 50-ton packages around the country. The CDC is shifting part of one package to a climate-controlled facility at a secret location for the Games.

Citing security, health officials will not say exactly how much is being sent. But Williams said it is enough to treat great numbers of people for a huge range of infections for hours, at least until more supplies can be sent.

CDC director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, in Atlanta, is authorized to release the drugs in an emergency.

The anthrax-by-mail attacks provided a sort of trial run for health departments around the country, Williams said.

``It really tested our system,'' he said. ``It was certainly unfortunate, but it really refined our system _ sort of more than we could have. It was the best mock exercise we could have had.''