Southern California Health System Unprepared for Bioterrorist Attack, Officials Say
Southern California health officials say that a lack of hospital beds and chronic underfunding have left the region's health system inadequately prepared to respond to a bioterrorist attack or another mass-casualty disaster, the Los Angeles Times reports. Los Angeles County has fewer hospital beds than it did in 1994, when the Northridge earthquake hit, and since then 19 hospitals and "several" emergency departments have closed. County officials say that hospitals, operating in a public health system "chronically starved for funds," do not have enough "basic protective gear" to handle a biological or chemical attack. Carol Gunter, assistant director of the county's Emergency Medical Services, said that 82 hospitals in the county "are not equipped to treat patients coated in toxic chemicals." Moreover, overcrowding in hospitals -- "even in normal times" -- forces emergency rooms to divert ambulances and patients to wait for "hours." The shortage of beds and nurses could get worse if federal funding for public hospitals is not increased. In addition, the "immense sprawl" of the county would make it difficult to bring in medical personnel from other counties to treat patients affected by an attack in enough time to prevent multiple deaths. "You're dealing with a health care system that's stressed out to begin with," Dr. Brian Johnston, an emergency room physician and former president of the Los Angeles County Medical Association, said, adding, "If we had a major problem in Los Angeles County tonight or tomorrow we would have a serious difficulty meeting the need." In San Diego County, a computer simulation last year testing an anthrax attack in a shopping mall found that the "thousands of people" injured would "overwhelm" hospitals.
Despite these shortcomings, Southern California officials have stepped up their counter-bioterrorism activities and preparations in recent years. In addition, since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Los Angeles County Health Department has "remind[ed]" private hospitals to look for "signs" of a bioterrorist attack (Ornstein/Riccardi, Los Angeles Times, 10/3). The county also has a counter-bioterrorism team at the Public Health Laboratory that belongs to the National Laboratory Response Network, a partnership among several federal agencies -- including the CDC -- that was formed in 1998, the Times reports. Through participation in the network, the county receives $700,000 annually from the federal government, $220,000 of which goes to the Public Health Laboratory (Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, 10/3). San Diego County officials are looking to develop a computerized system to link hospitals, doctors and epidemiologists that would help identify a bioterrorist attack (Los Angeles Times, 10/3). Yesterday, more than 300 Southern California emergency workers, doctors and hospital officials attended a conference in Ontario outlining "potential bioterrorist threats" (Beeman, Riverside Press Enterprise, 10/3).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.