HHS Reorganizes Bioterrorist Response Strategy
After being criticized for their response to the recent anthrax attacks, federal health officials have started to "reorganiz[e]" their approach to combating bioterrorism, the Washington Post reports. When the anthrax attacks first occurred, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson created a "situation room" at HHS to manage the response. But that plan had "weaknesses," and no one in the room coordinated public communications, the Post reports. Further, "frustration" has been "grea[t]" within the CDC, whose relationship with HHS has been "strained" because of a lack of communication. For example, CDC officials tracking new cases of anthrax had to rely on cable television to "keep current" because of a lack of information from HHS. Dan Hanfling, an emergency room physician who treated a postal worker infected with anthrax at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va., recently told a congressional committee, "It became readily apparent that a lack of coordinated communication and inconsistent leadership from the top was hindering the ability of the medical community to respond in a coordinated fashion."
To beef up the department's response to bioterrorism, Thompson recently hired three bioterrorism experts to run a new Office of Preparedness and appointed an HHS liaison to the White House Office of Homeland Security. Donald Henderson, who helped eradicate smallpox and is the founding director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, was hired to direct the new HHS Office of Preparedness. Henderson said one of his "top priorities" is to "work out" a communication system. He also will work with his staff to expand vaccine programs and create protocols for labs and local health departments to handle biological agents (Connolly, Washington Post, 11/8). Part of that effort includes preparing the nation for a possible smallpox attack. Henderson said the public health system must be "rebuil[t]" to handle an attack, including giving local health officials "quick and constant access" to state and federal health officials and labs so patients can be tested quickly for infection and quarantined if necessary (Fox, Reuters/Contra Costa Times, 11/6).
Working closely with Henderson in the new office will be Philip Russell, a retired Army major general who worked in vaccine development, and Michael Ascher, who heads California's bioterrorism effort. Scott Lillibridge, Thompson's special assistant for bioterrorism, said the new Office of Preparedness is a "bridge" to a new assistant secretary position at HHS for "emergency public health or health security." He added, "This is a harbinger of something a little more elevated and a little more robust." Besides appointing new bioterrorism experts and creating the Office of Preparedness, Thompson also has instituted a daily conference call to "coordinate his agency chiefs." Although Thompson has defended HHS' response to the anthrax attacks, the Post reports the department's changes are a "recognition" that the health system is "struggling" to investigate and handle what appears to be a "small scale biological assault" (Washington Post, 11/8).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.