Canton Repository

March 25, 2003

Health commissioner tours command post

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — On a typical day, Canton City Health Commissioner Robert Pattison deals with public health issues at the most local level. But on Monday, he got a glimpse of the nation’s public health system from a very different vantage point.

At the invitation of Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, Pattison toured the three-month-old command center at the Department of Health and Human Services. Pattison’s responsibilities extend beyond Canton, since his department administers federal bioterrorism funds for health departments in Stark County, Massillon and Alliance.

Top federal health officials were receiving a confidential briefing on a mysterious, recently discovered disease as Pattison and Regula entered the gleaming $3.5 million facility.

“I think it’s impressive,” said Pattison, who was accompanied by his wife, Janice. The command center was built last year as a communications and management headquarters to deal with a bioterrorist attack or other health threat.

In a videoconference linkup with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding was explaining that investigators may have found the cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which has killed 11 people since been being discovered in Asia several weeks ago.

Later that afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control would make a public announcement that a previously unrecognized virus is considered the leading candidate to be the cause of the disease.

During the briefing, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson stepped into the room to greet Regula. Thompson told Gerberding to take good care of the congressman, who is chairman of a key Appropriations subcommittee that makes decisions on federal health spending.

“This is the nicest gentleman in Congress, and he’s got the biggest pocketbook,” said Thompson, in recognition of the enormous influence Regula has over his agency’s budget.

Spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the nation has embarked on an effort to develop a stronger and better-coordinated public health system to respond to germ or chemical warfare or other health emergencies.

One of the goals, and one that Regula said is particularly important to him, is creating a “seamless” web of communications making it easier for local, state and federal health agencies to talk with each other at any time.

Regula said he became convinced of the need for seamless communications after he was unable to reach the Centers for Disease Control on a Sunday morning after a meningitis outbreak in Stark County.

“I said, that’s got to change,” Regula recalled.

The command center is filled with computers, telephones and other devices that enable officials to be in “constant communication” with the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, said Jerome M. Hauer, acting assistant secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

Prominent on all four walls of the spacious room are electronic screens that display the spread of West Nile virus and other diseases, and show the weather and broadcast news from around the world.

Backup power and special air filters give the command center extra security.

“I was impressed with their database,” Pattison said, after federal officials used a computer to pull up information on Aultman and Mercy hospitals in Canton, including their capacities.

The information, shown on a screen, included the names of the current administrators of the hospitals, who Pattison said are new. He was surprised the database was that up to date.

It took some time at first, several minutes at least, to find the right Canton. “There are a lot of Cantons (from around the nation) listed here,” the official operating the computer said.

After Canton was found, Pattison asked if the Canton Health Department could be pulled up. No, said Hauer, because local health departments have not been entered into the database yet. If federal officials had to contact the Canton Health Department, they would typically do so through the state health department, he said.

Existing communications between the Canton Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control include reporting the cause of deaths to the Centers for Disease Control. Canton receives health alerts from the Centers for Disease Control via e-mail.

With the help of federal aid, Canton and other health agencies are developing systems to detect disease outbreaks and report them to state and federal authorities.

While progress has been made, Pattison said there is a still a “long way to go” before a seamless public health system is achieved.