California Unprepared to Handle Bioterrorism, Public Health Experts Say
California's health system is too overburdened, understaffed and underfunded to deal with a biological attack, public health officials told the Assembly Committee on Health yesterday at a public hearing at the University of California-Berkeley, the San Jose Mercury News reports (Lyons, San Jose Mercury News, 11/7). Years of "cost cutting" have stretched the health system so much that it cannot handle flu outbreaks, "much less a mass-casualty attack," public health experts said. For example, five California labs funded by the CDC that handled tests for "suspected bioterror substances" were overwhelmed after two days of testing various substances from false reports of anthrax, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Thirty-five other public health labs in the state had "to rush in to fill the gap," the Chronicle reports. Ann Chandler, director of Alameda County's public health lab, said, "We cannot keep up this pace. We're all suffering from years of downsizing and neglect." The California Nurses Association's Mary Jue added that the "growing" nursing shortage is a problem, particularly because there are not enough nurses to handle "daily work, let alone a public health disaster" (Burress, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/7).
To prepare for an attack, California should stockpile antibiotics, increase the number of hospital beds and purchase more hazardous-material protective gear, Barbara Pletz of the EMS Administrators Association of California suggested (San Jose Mercury News, 11/7). In addition, several witnesses suggested that public health workers' salaries should be raised to more "competitive levels," something that could be accomplished "relatively quickly," the Chronicle reports. The experts also called for "longer-term" solutions, such as "rebuilding" public health education in universities. Diana Bonta, director of the Department of Health Services, took a "different tone" than the other witnesses, saying that the state has made progress over the past two years to prepare for bioterrorism. She added the state "has responded to a lot of disasters in the past" (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/7).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.