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CDC begins ambitious program to shore up broken-down facilities
CHAMBLEE, Ga. -- At one Centers for Disease Control and Prevention building, paper towels are attached with masking tape to clattering air conditioning units to keep condensation from dripping onto computers that cost nearly $1 million each.
In another building, a $20 oscillating fan blows on sophisticated circuit boards to keep them from overheating.
Since Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks, lawmakers have been quick to promise the CDC money to fight bioterrorism. But agency officials say the crumbling buildings need just-as-urgent attention.
"We don't have any extra room," says Dr. Jim Pirkle of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health. "Imagine if you put four sofas in your living room. That's what we're trying to do."
Earlier this month the CDC dedicated two new labs at its campus here in suburban Atlanta -- sparkling glass-and-steel structures to house scientists working on parasitic diseases and toxins like lead and pesticide.
But a few of those scientists are still working in the facilities those labs are meant to replace -- shabby wood-frame buildings that resemble the trailers that overcrowded high schools use as classrooms.
"These people are diligent," CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding said recently. "They're there day in and day out doing their work. But morale is an issue."
The two buildings that opened here July 19 are the most visible pieces yet of CDC's plan for rebuilding and renovating, an ambitious 10-year, $1 billion project now in its second year.
Some of the next steps are a replacement for a 35-year-old lab at Fort Collins, Colo., used to study West Nile virus hantavirus, plague and other deadly pathogens.
New lab planned
Plans also call for a new lab to study new infectious diseases, an emergency operations center and a communications center.
While members of Congress, who must approve the spending year-by-year, promise the money to fight bioterrorism will be there, winning the dollars to spend on upgrades may not be as easy.
Some lawmakers still may be wary about giving money to the agency.
In 2000, then-director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan was forced to apologize to Congress for how scientists spent some money intended for deadly hantavirus. He said at the time that CDC accounting had grown careless as its budget grew.
But the CDC argues the rebuilding is critical -- and not just to guarantee the quality of the science conducted in the labs.
Agency officials grumble it's extremely difficult to recruit top-notch young scientists with an offer of government work in shabby facilities when the private sector is offering bigger salaries.
"I was recruited into the old facility," said Patty Wilkins, CDC's chief of parasitic diseases, "and you wondered why anyone would go over there to work."
The CDC contends the construction plan will actually save taxpayers money. The staff will be consolidated at the two main campuses, in Chamblee and Atlanta, eliminating the need for the agency to rent office space.
Most of the construction projects should be under way by 2009, but many will be finished by then, the CDC says. The agency plans to have all its renovations finished by 2012.
"Piece by piece, we're getting there," says Dr. Stephen Ostroff, a CDC infectious disease expert. "Just because they're working with Third World diseases doesn't mean they should be working in Third World facilities."
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