Canton Repository

January 9, 2003

Health officials seek more money to fight bioterrorism 

Copley Washington correspondent 

WASHINGTON —— Eight of 10 local public health departments feel better prepared to handle a bioterrorism attack than they did a year ago, thanks to more than $1 billion in federal aid, a national survey found.

But the agencies still don’t feel fully prepared, the December tally of 500 health departments revealed.

Key survey findings, released by the National Association of Counties Wednesday, are reflected in communities such as Canton.

Canton is making progress in building a defense against bioterrorism, officials say.

Canton Health Commissioner Robert Pattison expressed satisfaction with the almost $233,000 in start-up federal aid the local health agency has received for the first year.

“At this point in time, I think the funding was adequate,” he said. “We have progressed. We have good relationships among the health departments” in the county and state.

Yet, echoing survey sponsors, Pattison cautioned that if the federal government does not continue to provide funding, local health
agencies that are hiring additional personnel would be in trouble.

“We don’t have the local budget available to pick up the expenses of the personnel and maintaining the system that’s being developed,” he said. While continued federal funding is expected, “there certainly have not been any promises.”

NACo, the association of counties, and the National Association of County and City Health Officials sponsored the telephone survey conducted by National Research. NACo lobbies the federal government to adopt policies and provide funding that benefit local government.

The survey revealed that 84 percent of responding health departments believe they are better prepared to respond to biological attack than a year before. In a survey last January, more than 90 percent of respondents said they were unprepared for bioterrorism.

“These data show that great gains have been made,” NACo executive director Larry Naake said in a prepared statement. “We are proud of the accomplishments made in the last year, but we are aware that without a continued and reliable federal funding source that these gains cannot be maintained.”

The latest bioterrorism challenge facing local health departments is gearing up to administer smallpox vaccinations ordered by the president in December.

The first waves of vaccinations, which are voluntary, would protect health workers and law enforcement officers who would be on the front lines if terrorists unleashed the deadly virus.

More than 200 nurses, physicians and others from local health departments are going to Columbus next week to receive training in giving the vaccine.

Barb Bradley, chief of infectious disease control in the state health department, said Ohio is awaiting a go-ahead from Bush to begin vaccinations.

Since receiving the federal bioterrorism aid in September, Canton has hired several new employees, including an epidemiologist, or specialist in communicable disease. That person will study patterns and trends of infections and be on the lookout for natural or man-made outbreaks.

Like other health departments in Ohio, Canton is sharing new hires with other agencies, including the Stark County Health Department and the Massillon and Alliance health departments.

Stark has hired an educator and health planner to work on bioterrorism. Canton has employed a data specialist who is setting up the agency’s information technology system to keep track of suspicious infections and other health-related developments.

In Tuscarawas County, the health department has hired an epidemiologist with a portion of its $115,000 in aid. Epidemiologist Michael Ruta began work in December and will assist several nearby counties.

The department also ordered computer equipment and Palm Pilot devices to improve communications, said Vickie Ionno, director of clinical services at the department.

Harrison County has spent about $53,000 of its $85,000 grant to upgrade its computer system and give a formerly part-time nurse full-time responsibilities in disease surveillance.

The county also has used funds to prepare for smallpox vaccinations, said James R. Howell, environmental health director for the health department.