Canton Repository

October 4, 2001

Confidence vs. bioterror seen as misguided 

Copley News Service 

WASHINGTON — Two senators and a bioterrorism expert took issue with Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson on Wednesday when he insisted the nation is ready to respond to a biological or chemical attack.

During a bioterrorism hearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Thompson told Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., “We think we can handle any contingency dealing with bioterrorism at this time.” Thompson acknowledged there are gaps that need to be filled and “much more that can and should be done.”

Thompson remarked to Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., “I am absolutely assured we could respond.”

An openly skeptical Byrd replied, “Would you still love me if I tell you I don’t believe that?” Thompson said, “I still will love you.” Byrd called Thompson’s expression of confidence a “broad statement” and said “Washington is full of broad statements and hyperbole. I just don’t believe that. I think we ought to be very careful.”

With the hearing room packed beyond capacity, Specter added, “I would support what Sen. Byrd said. Those categorical statements I think will not really help.”

Dr. Stephen V. Cantrill, who participated in a response to a simulated bioterrorism attack in Denver last year, also disagreed with Thompson while testifying to the subcommittee.

He called it “an illusion shared by many that our health-care system could adequately deal with a significant” bioterrorism attack.

“Due to multiple pressures, including fiscal, regulatory and inadequate available staff, our hospitals today have no surge capacity,” he said. “They could not adjust to a sudden increase in patient load without degenerating into chaos.”

Thompson said he was assured by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week that mobile military hospitals and vaccines would be made available in a national emergency.

The hearing was chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a member of the Appropriations Committee. Harkin is trying to determine how much extra money the nation’s public health system needs to fight terrorism. Initial estimates have ranged from $800 million to $1.6 billion.

In the House on Wednesday, Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, presided over his subcommittee’s approval of $393 million to help prepare for a possible biological attack. Regula said the amount, about $100 million more than was spent last year, was a “high priority” in the bill.

The House and Senate still must agree on the level of anti-terrorism funding.

Two truths emerged from the hearing. One is that it would be difficult to mount a serious attack with biological or chemical weapons. The other is that if such an attack succeeded, it could be devastating.

“The overall probability is low, yet it has increased,” said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Frist, with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., authored an antiterrorism bill that was signed into law last year. “We’re talking about the potential destruction of millions,” he added.

Thompson outlined several areas where aggressive improvements are needed, including strengthening the federal partnership with state and local health departments and medical personnel. He also called for expanding the supply of vaccines and drugs available to respond to an attack, improving food inspections and providing security for vaccine stockpiles and medical facilities.

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, told Thompson there seems to be an “immense challenge” in coordinating hundreds or thousands of local and state health agencies, fire departments and other emergency personnel to respond to an emergency.