San Diego Union-Tribune

December 8, 2001

State official sees little need for adopting model bioterrorism plan

By Toby Eckert 

WASHINGTON -- California has little need to adopt a model bioterrorism response plan proposed by federal officials because the governor has adequate authority to order quarantines and other emergency measures, state Health Director Diana Bonta said yesterday.

But a state lawmaker is preparing to introduce legislation in Sacramento early next year based on the federal plan, which would give states broad powers to take over hospitals, access patient records, implement quarantines and order vaccinations.

Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Northridge, who is a physician, said the measure is needed to better define the state's response to a biological attack.

Bonta made her comments in a conference call with reporters, which also included health officials from several other states.

The officials repeated their call for immediate vaccination of local health-care workers who would be the first to respond to a smallpox outbreak. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have balked at the idea.

The states' officials also said the federal government needs to immediately pump up to $2 billion into the nation's public health infrastructure to be prepared for biological attacks.

Their comments underscored the differences that remain between federal and state officials over how to respond to such attacks. Gaps in federal-state coordination were highlighted by the recent anthrax outbreak on the East Coast.

A "model state emergency health powers act," drafted for the CDC by lawyers and health experts, was sent to governors in all 50 states last month. 

Federal officials said it was needed because current laws governing quarantines and other responses to disease outbreaks are outdated or incomplete.

Bonta said that is not the case in California.

"We feel that . . . what we currently have in the power and authority of the governor is sufficient for us," she said.

Richman disagreed.

"The governor certainly has broad powers currently. . . . But I think it's important that these issues and statutes be put in a single body of law that delineates those powers and provides a framework for planning," he said in an interview.

Russ Lopez, spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis, said the governor "has sweeping powers under the California Emergency Services Act."

"If something happens, the governor can do what needs to be done to make sure that everyone is protected and safe," Lopez said.

While in most instances state and local health-care workers would be the first to respond to a bioterrorism attack, a draft smallpox response plan from the CDC contains no provision to vaccinate them before any reported outbreak of the highly contagious disease.

The state officials said talks on the issue were continuing with the CDC. But a spokesman for the agency said that it "would not be prudent to vaccinate all first responders" because of the limited supply of smallpox vaccine.

The response plan calls for vaccinating 200 CDC workers ready to be dispatched to the site of a suspected attack, said spokesman Curtis Allen. If an outbreak is confirmed, people on the scene would then be vaccinated.