State worst in bioterror readiness

Alaska is on the bottom with Massachusetts, despite federal funding

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

WASHINGTON - States are slowly getting better prepared to handle bioterrorism, but most still don't have statewide response plans and federal funding is declining, according to a new report.

Alaska and Massachusetts got the lowest rankings in a nationwide study by the private Trust for America's Health released Tuesday. That's despite infusions of federal aid designed to improve emergency responsiveness.

Compiled by the nonprofit Trust for America's Health, the report issued Tuesday found only six states are adequately prepared to distribute vaccines and antidotes in an emergency, but it named only three of them: Florida, Illinois and Louisiana.

A few of the study's findings on Alaska were inaccurate, said Alaska Department of Health and Social Services director of public health Dick Mandsager. But in general, the study is important because it raises questions about the adequacy of the current level of public health funding, he said.

Alaska lost about $1 million - one-sixth of its bioterrorism funding - last summer when federal authorities redirected $50 million from states to urban communities.

Mandsager said that decision slowed progress on two fronts in Alaska: preparing a response plan for a possible flu pandemic and providing bioterror training for hospital, public health and safety workers. "We have a ways to go," Mandsager said.

Florida and North Carolina, both familiar with evacuating residents and distributing emergency aid, received top rankings in the study.

Alaska was the only state without adequate statutory authority to quarantine its residents in response to a bioterrorism attack, according to the study.

Alaska also received a poor rating because it cut its public health budget between 2003 and 2004, according to the study. Mandager said that finding was inaccurate. "The actual dollars were basically the same," he said.

Overall, the report found that most states still lack statewide response plans. Federal planning money is declining.

The report echoed fears voiced by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in announcing his resignation this month, that he couldn't understand why terrorists haven't attacked the country's food supply because it would be "so easy to do."

The review also follows a year in which the country faced a shortage of flu vaccines, normally a routine protection against a known problem.

Combating bioterror is the weakest link in homeland security, said former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., now president of Trust for America's Health.

"We're not ready, and I see no excuses as to why we shouldn't be," said Weicker, who served three terms in the Senate. He said that while the report focuses on bioterror, it also shows the country is ill-prepared to deal with daily public health emergencies from childhood asthma to West Nile virus.

States like Florida have spent money on training and built an effective infrastructure to deal with public health emergencies, said Shelley Hearne, executive director of the Trust for America's Health.

The report concluded that basic bioterror detection, diagnosis and response capabilities are not in place, and the country has a long way to go to protect the public from such attacks.

A common problem was lack of money. Federal bioterror aid was decreased by about $1 million per state in 2004, and about one-third of the states saw their public health budgets decline.

The report graded states on whether they met 10 criteria, including such elements as the amount of state spending and federal aid allocated to public health, flu vaccine rates and the number of scientists and laboratories available to test for anthrax or the plague.

No state met all 10 criteria, and only Florida and North Carolina met nine of the 10. Most states met five or six criteria.

The most significant failure among the states was the lack of adequate public health labs and laboratory scientists to handle serious outbreaks. The report found only 16 states have enough labs and 21 enough scientists. Alaska didn't report sufficient lab capabilities but did report it has enough scientists to run testing, according to the study.

Mandsager said Alaska has sufficient lab capability and scientists.

Handling a flu pandemic, especially considering this year's shortage of flu vaccines, would be a problem for at least 20 states, including Alaska, which have no public response plan.

Mandsager said Alaska's plan will be ready this winter.

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