Canton Repository

December 15, 2004

Report says Ohio, other states lag on bioterror preparedness

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — Ohio has made progress in preparing for a bioterrorist attack, but the state falls short of what some other states have achieved, an independent group reported Tuesday.

In its second annual assessment, Trust for America’s Health reported that despite progress, Americans are still at risk from a biological or chemical attack.

The survey found that two-thirds of the states were not fully prepared despite large infusions of federal funds in the past three years.

“The conclusions of this study demand an answer,” said Lowell Weicker Jr., president of the trust’s board and a former Republican senator from Connecticut.

“What will it take to make bioterrorism and public health preparedness a real national priority?”

Ohio made the grade in six of 10 areas of preparedness selected by the nonprofit group. That represents an improvement over last year, when the state scored a four out of 10.

But the report said Ohio lacks sufficient capacity for responding to a biological attack, is short of scientists to test for anthrax or plague, and has spent less than 90 percent of the $46 million in federal bioterrorism funding it received last year.

Florida, Maryland and Tennessee scored highest in the survey.

Ohio officials took issue with some of the findings.

“It’s a snapshot,” Ohio Public Health Department spokesman Bret Atkins said. “But I think the real measure of what we look at is how you deal with real life events.”

He trumpeted the public health system’s performance during an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness at South Bass Island in Lake Erie in August.

Atkins added that Ohio has the fourth-highest ranking in the nation for vaccinating medical-care providers for a smallpox epidemic.

He questioned the report’s finding that the state lacks sufficient biosafety laboratories to handle major airborne diseases such as anthrax and smallpox.

“I don’t know where they got that piece of information,” he said.

The report says the state had sufficient lab capacity last year, but then lost it. According to Atkins, Ohio has the same biosafety lab that it had last year in Columbus. A replacement lab is being built in Reynoldsburg.

The state has spent about 87 percent of its federal grant, rather than the 90 percent called for by the report. Atkins said officials have tried to “make sure the money is spent wisely.”

He also disputed the finding that the state lacks enough scientists in its labs.

“We’ve added staff; we’ve written up agreements and partnerships with labs that can handle overflow,” he said.

Ohio scored well in some areas.

The state has an electronic, Internet-linked disease-tracking system, as well as a pandemic flu plan, the report said. Ohio also has the legal authority to quarantine if necessary, and has increased flu vaccination rates among older adults.

The report also noted that the state has increased spending on public health and won local concurrence with its state bioterror preparedness plan.