Bioterrorism Threat Finds States, Feds Lacking: GAO
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
State public health departments will lead the response to any germ warfare attack on the United States, but even the most charitable assessment of their preparations to date suggests they are only slowly rising to the challenge, the General Accounting Office says.
Federal efforts to counter a terrorist attack involving the threat or use of biological weapons, though likely to accelerate after the Sept. 11 attacks upon New York City and Washington, D.C., are now scattered across eleven departments and agencies, with relatively little financial aid trickling down to the state level, the GAO reported Friday.
In an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes that aired Sunday night, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson dismissed the report's alarming implications for public safety. "We've got to make sure that people understand they're safe . . . I have three kids and tonight, tonight I'm telling them that they are safe. And my granddaughter, who is less than two years old, is safe as well," Thompson said.
Pointing to the swift delivery of medicine and health equipment from one of eight giant federal health supply depots to New York City on the afternoon of the attacks, Thompson said federal help is readily available in the event of a biological assault.
But the GAO review found many federal projects in the start-up phase, with several potentially duplicating the work of others.
At least four agencies the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Justice, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Emergency Preparedness, offer assistance to state and local governments in planning for a biological attack through separate programs.
But the amount of money available is sparse. In FY 2000, The CDC divided $11 million for early detection among 48 states and another $6 million for laboratory improvements among 42 states.
Citing earlier GAO studies, a CDC report on public health infrastructure made public last February and the findings of the congressionally-appointed panel on domestic terrorism chaired by Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore, the report listed several problems with state preparedness, including:
- insufficient statewide planning for terrorist attacks;
- inadequate public health infrastructure;
- minimal participation among hospitals in terrorism and emergency response drills
- doubts about hospital, clinic and emergency teams?
- capacity to handle large numbers of casualties quickly and effectively.
A copy of the report is available on the GAO web site.