States, cities adjust to governing with bioterror threats

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- From identifying dangerous microbes to making Mount Rushmore more secure, states and cities are racing to put protections in place against bioterrorism.

A first wave of grants is arriving from Washington, spurring efforts to expand labs, enhance the reporting of outbreaks of sickness and guard against farm diseases that a terrorist might exploit.

Governments are preparing for nightmare scenarios they hardly imagined before Sept. 11: They are securing water reservoirs, updating alert systems from regular mail to high-speed intranets and drawing plans to protect monuments and sports stadiums.

$1.1 billion

Most of the $1.1 billion appropriated by Congress in January is in the pipeline, and the new Bioterrorism Act promises more than $4 billion in additional help -- although some officials have found plans tied up in Washington or state capitals.

"It's kind of like terror itself," said Lin Wilson, the grant application writer in Allen County, Ind. "You never know when the money's going to strike."

Anthrax attacks have killed five Americans.

The country is stockpiling vaccines for smallpox, a devastating but defeated disease that terrorists might try to spring loose again, and experts appointed by the government are to conclude this week whether the public should be widely inoculated against it.

Foot and mouth disease, which can devastate an economy, is another possible terrorist threat.

The federal money is for building up vaccines, improving food inspections, boosting security for water systems and many other uses. Building labs and training medical professionals to respond to bioterror outbreaks are priorities.

"We are seeing measurable progress, but we still don't have the capacity to care for our communities," said Javier Gonzalez, the Santa Fe, N.M., commissioner who heads the National Association of Counties, the main lobbyist for local governments.

All but two states have received most of their money that was set aside in January -- the bulk of it coming just this month. (Montana, Utah and Washington, D.C., have yet to submit applications.)

It could take months for the money to filter to the local level. Even then, some local authorities lack the people and facilities to make the new programs work.

"It's not going to happen overnight; in some cases it's not even going to happen in a year," said Gonzalez.

Many rural counties have closed hospitals in recent years and remaining health centers are often understaffed, as young professionals shun country doctor careers.

In January, 90 percent of county governments were found unprepared for biological or chemical attacks in a survey.

"A significant number of local health departments have no high speed access to the Internet, no way of sharing of data, no way of learning what's going on around the country," said Tom Milne, who runs the National Association of County-City Health Officials.

America's decentralized health care also makes it hard to track illness outbreaks quickly.

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