Most Counties Unprepared for Bioterrorism Attack, Study Finds
Fewer than 10% of the nation's county health departments are "fully prepared" to handle a biological terrorist attack, and more than one-fifth are completely unprepared, according to a study released yesterday by the National Association of Counties, the Washington Post reports. "Many departments are so under-funded, understaffed and under-trained that they are not ready to effectively handle a major crisis," Javier Gonzales, the association's president and a county commissioner in Santa Fe, N.M., said in a speech at the National Press Club yesterday. The study, which examined 300 of the nation's 3,066 counties, found that only 9.7% are fully prepared for a biological attack and that only 5% could handle a chemical weapons attack. And while a majority of departments have taken some steps to prepare for bioterrorism and the resulting public health needs, 21% said they were not at all prepared for a biological attack, and 43% said they were not at all prepared for a chemical attack (Miller, Washington Post, 1/29).
Gonzales described the situation of an Iowa county health director with "no staff, no funds and no supplies," whose three-point plan in the event of a bioterrorist attack would be "to call for help, hope that somebody comes and stack the bodies in the gymnasium" (Neighmond, "Morning Edition," NPR, 1/29). Gonzales said the study illustrates the need for more federal assistance to counties. Congress has approved a bioterrorism package that allocates $865 million to state and local health departments this year, and President Bush will propose $6 billion for bioterrorism prevention in his fiscal year 2003 budget. Gonzales said the administration should supplement this aid by selling "homeland security bonds" and offering a $1 optional income tax checkoff that would go to state and local governments. "Improvements must be made immediately, and a long-term plan for rebuilding the system must be developed," he said (Washington Post, 1/29). The "Morning Edition" report on the study will be available in RealAudio at http://search.npr.org/cf/cmn/cmnpd01fm.cfm?PrgDate=1%2F29%2F2002&PrgID=3 after noon ET. The NACO survey and information about counties' bioterrorism preparedness are available at
Meanwhile, with the threat of bioterrorism now present, at least 20 states have begun reviewing their quarantine laws to determine under what scenarios the strategy would be employed and which authorities would enforce it, the AP/Nando Times reports. The states' consideration comes after the CDC last fall released model legislation that states can use as a guideline when writing their laws. While the model legislation directs states to use the "least restrictive means necessary" to control a disease outbreak and attempts to ensure that any people who are quarantined receive proper care, many health officials "admit they're fighting fears produced at the mere mention" of the "Q-word" -- "images of armed guards swarming around hospitals, with infected patients left helpless inside." According to the CDC, advances in public health make such a scenario highly unlikely. Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University public health professor who helped to write the model legislation, said that information from public health officials would help to alleviate the public's apprehension. "There should be very clear communication to the public. Failing that, you could have hysteria, confusion and even civil disobedience. You can't overestimate the importance of calm," he said (McClam, AP/Nando Times, 1/29).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.