Government Agencies Understaffed, Unprepared for Bioterrorist Threats, Report Finds
The government's biodefense agencies could become overwhelmed in the event of a bioterrorist attack because of shortages in skilled medical and scientific employees, according to a Partnership for Public Service study that will be released tomorrow, the New York Times reports. The not-for-profit group, which seeks to attract more qualified people to government service, studied the readiness of five federal biodefense agencies. Based on interviews with senior agency officials and a technical literature review, the researchers determined that the CDC, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the FDA, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service are all facing "serious staffing issues" and that those agencies have "struggled" to hire employees with sufficient scientific and medical knowledge, the Times reports. The study predicts that recruitment and retention will become increasingly difficult because 50% of employees in "critical" jobs will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, the federal government's hiring process is complex and the government rewards employees for longevity of service rather than performance. The study also finds that the federal government is seeking "far fewer resources" for chemical, biological and nuclear attack training for medical and scientific experts than for first responders, such as police officers, firefighters, ambulance and hospital workers and National Guard units, the Times reports. The group recommends that the government begin a recruitment campaign for biodefense experts trained in genetics, infectious disease medicine, bacteriology, microbiology, pharmacology, epidemiology and the physics of aerosol attacks. The Homeland Security Department, HHS, NIH and the CDC declined to comment on the study (Johnston, New York Times, 7/6).
In related news, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson on Thursday announced that the department will expand the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by recruiting more health care providers and better training them, the Washington Post reports (Branigan, Washington Post, 7/4). The Commissioned Corps is one of the seven Uniformed Services of the United States. The initiative will create scholarships to recruit 1,000 nurses and 100 doctors annually to work in medically underserved areas, improve and expand training, make the corps 100% deployable by the end of 2005 and establish a reserve corps. The program also aims to recruit 275 new officers for the Indian Health Service by Sept. 30, 2004. Thompson said, "As we face an uncertain future of possible terrorist attacks, emerging infectious diseases, natural disasters and other prevention or public health needs, this transformation will help us strengthen our public health infrastructure and response system to better serve the American people" (HHS release, 7/3).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.