Los Angeles Times Looks at Hospitals’ ‘Inadequate’ Preparation for Large-Scale Disaster
The Los Angeles Times today looks at how "years of budget cuts" have left hospitals in California and nationwide underprepared for a "massive disaster." The United States currently has 4,700 emergency rooms and 37,500 general intensive care beds, which "most public health experts say is woefully inadequate" to handle a large-scale bioterrorist attack or other disaster. According to state and federal statistics, an estimated 80% of cases of infectious diseases go unreported, largely because laws governing tracking systems are "antiquated and disorganized." In California, for instance, only three of the pathogens "that terrorists are considered likely to use" must be reported immediately to public health officials.
Meanwhile, cutbacks in staff and services over the past two decades have left both private and public hospitals without the resources to deal with a disaster. Dallas' Parkland Hospital is considered one of the most prepared for such an event, but it can handle only 100 critically ill patients at one time. In Los Angeles, County-USC Medical Center's "brand new" decontamination area consists of a "single portable shower set up on a loading dock, with an unassembled mass shower in storage nearby," while doctors at Northridge Hospital Medical Center "rely on county-owned portable showers, used by hazardous materials cleanup teams, that collect contaminated water in children's wading pools." Even without the threat of bioterrorism, hospitals "were scrambling" to maintain sufficient supplies of vaccine and equipment before Sept. 11, the Times reports. During the flu season, hospitals throughout Southern California "routinely run out of ventilators, which would be vital for victims of a bioterrorist attack using botulism," according to Virginia Hastings, chief of emergency services for Los Angeles County. The American Hospital Association said last month that hospitals need $11 billion in federal funding to boost their bioterrorism preparedness by purchasing such items as decontamination equipment and sanitary suits (Bernstein, Los Angeles Times, 11/19).