San Diego Union Tribune

May 22, 2004

Feds act to counter bioterrorism
$27 million being set aside for cities


WASHINGTON Citing a "heightened concern about attacks on the U.S. homeland in the next several months," the federal government wants to ramp up efforts to prepare San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and 18 other major cities to respond to biological terrorism.

Under the new "Cities Readiness Initiative," the nation's largest urban areas would get $27 million in grant funding to establish procedures for rapid antibiotic distribution and other initiatives.

In California, $2.67 million would flow to Los Angeles, $1.22 million to San Diego and $940,000 to San Francisco.

The U.S. Postal Service would get $12 million to help distribute vaccines and other medical supplies in the cities in the event of an attack.

The funding would come from a pool of money that had been earmarked for states, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told key members of Congress this week.

The plan isn't sitting well with some lawmakers and state officials, who object to rerouting a portion of the $934.5 million in bioterrorism preparedness grants for the states this fiscal year. Congress could block the initiative.

Thompson has proposed reallocating $54.9 million in state funding. In addition to the money for the cities and the Postal Service, that includes $15.9 million to expand quarantine stations at U.S. airports and increase disease surveillance.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Thompson expressed concern "about the slow rate at which states are expending available federal funds to improve homeland defense, and the large unliquidated balances that remain from the (fiscal year 2002 and 2003) grants."

"In view of the heightened concern about attacks on the U.S. homeland in the next several months, we must ensure that our dollars are directed prudently toward enhancing readiness in areas where we have significant vulnerability," Thompson wrote.

Specter heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees health and human services spending.

Thompson's spokesman, Bill Hall, said the secretary was not referring to a specific threat, but rather a number of major events occurring around the nation this summer. They include the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions in New York and Boston and the G-8 summit of world leaders in Atlanta.

Some officials and terrorism experts also fear attacks in retaliation for U.S. actions in Iraq, including highly publicized prisoner abuses.

A top concern is the ability of public health officials to quickly respond to a large-scale biological attack that utilizes bacteria such as anthrax, which causes respiratory failure.

The Cities Readiness Initiative is aimed at building and sustaining an ability to provide antibiotics to a city's population within 48 hours; integrating federal, state and local emergency plans, including antibiotic distribution; establishing systems to inform the public about the availability of antibiotics; and adopting security procedures for the distribution sites and personnel.

Thompson said he wants to expand the initiative to 20 more cities during the 2005 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Specter endorsed the plan, but other lawmakers and state officials raised concerns about it.

Mary Selecky, who heads the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said that while the plan had merit, it would drain money from other initiatives states were already planning.

Homeland security and public health officials in San Diego County said they had not been informed of the initiative yet and could not comment on it. "It makes it difficult to decide what we won't do next year," said Selecky, who heads the Washington State Department of Health. "Something will be undone."