Public health systems ill-prepared for terrorist attacks, officials

Wednesday, September 22nd 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Local public health systems remain
ill-prepared to respond to potential biological or chemical
terrorist attacks, emergency management and medical officials told
a House subcommittee Wednesday.

An administration official, acknowledging the situation, said
the Department of Health and Human Services was working hard to
improve it.

"Public health is a critical component of a comprehensive
response plan, yet, collectively, we are far from where we need to
be to have an integrated response capability in every state,"
Ellen Gordon, immediate past president of the National Emergency
Management Association, told the House Government Reform Committee
panel on national security, veterans affairs and international

Gordon, also the administrator of Iowa's emergency management
division, said state emergency management directors believe there
are a variety of reasons why most state public health systems are
unprepared. Among them, she said, are lack of coordination among
medical, emergency management and law enforcement agencies, and
little capacity to detect a potentially deadly biological attack
soon after it occurs.

"States need the immediate help of Congress and the federal
government to bring the public health system up to an appropriate
level of readiness," Gordon said.

A Senate committee heard similar testimony at a hearing in June

Joseph Waeckerle, chairman of the American College of Emergency
Physicians' Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Task Force, said many
plans are based on a model that does not address biological agents,
which require a different response from what would be used for a
chemical spill or attack.

Training emergency health care personnel to recognize and
respond to such attacks is needed, as well as a central federal
office to coordinate planning, he said.

Most health care providers lack the knowledge or "level of
suspicion" to detect a biological attack and, without it, "our
country will be missing a critical link in the appropriate
management of a terrorist attack," Waeckerle said.

Robert Knouss, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness
at HHS, said his office was helping local jurisdictions by creating
Metropolitan Medical Response Systems. Contracts have been awarded
to 47 metropolitan areas to plan their response to a release of
chemical or biological weapons, he said. The administration's
fiscal 2000 budget request contains funding for 25 more cities.

The nation's largest 120 metropolitan areas eventually will have
such plans.

"I cannot tell you that the nation is prepared to deal with the
large-scale medical effects of terrorism," Knouss said. "But we
are working very diligently to prepare local medical systems and
public health infrastructures."