July 23, 2008

U.S. Stockpiling Antidotes to Counter a Biological Threat

By Amanda Milkovits

A federal Homeland Security official tells congressmen meeting at the R.I. State House that more is needed at the state and federal levels, however, to prepare for such a threat.

PROVIDENCE -- If a virus or a biological attack such as airborne anthrax spread through a mid-sized city like Providence, it may not be detected for several days.

And then, many people would suddenly flood into doctors' offices and hospital emergency rooms, overwhelming the health-care providers who'd be attempting to treat the ill and find out the cause. By then, the illness would have progressed and spread, become difficult to treat and its effect would be felt at every level of society.

This is the description used by Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as he testified about the possibility of a biological threat in the country and how prepared health and Homeland Security officials were to handle it.

U.S. Rep. James Langevin, the chairman of the House Subcommittee of Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, Science and Technology, convened a field hearing at the State House yesterday to gauge the progress of the state and nation's preparedness for a biological threat. He was joined by committee members U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., and Rep. Donna Christensen, D-Virgin Islands.

State and federal officials told the subcommittee that plans and preparation had progressed, but more work needed to be done. The national stockpile of antidotes is being built, the federal government is working with companies to develop vaccines and antidotes to biological threats and more technology is needed to detect an airborne biological hazard.

On a state level, while hospital officials and medical professionals have become more prepared to deal with a sudden surge of patients, they know a large-scale disaster would leave them struggling to maintain care.

While much of the federal government's focus has been on explosive devices, Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the committee that he believes that biological attacks and the spread of pandemic flu would have a more widespread effect, touching every level of society.

"What's also problematic with biological threats, it is not geographically limited," Vanderwagen said. "So you're not sure exactly when it started and you're not sure when it's going to end."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set a goal for antiviral antidotes to stockpile enough to treat 81 million people: 50 million from the HHS and 31 million from state supplies. Most of the states have enrolled in a federally subsidized program to purchase their own antiviral supplies.

Vanderwagen said he didn't believe that every state would be able to complete building up the stockpile of medications because they can't afford to and some don't want to participate. "This is a federal republic," Vanderwagen said. "We can't force states to make those purchases. ... They'll get the federal share [of antidotes], but they are at risk."

In Rhode Island, the state's Disaster Medical Assistance Team is made up of 250 medical professionals with access to a cache of medical and logistical equipment to deal with a disaster, including setting up a field hospital -- all deployable anywhere in the country within six hours.

But last month, the cache that the Rhode Island team uses was moved north of Boston, and its warehouse here was closed because the National Disaster Medical System decided to regionalize all of the disaster medical teams caches, said Tom Kilday, the homeland security program manager at the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. So, if a biological disaster happens and the state borders are closed, the Rhode Island team wouldn't be able to get to its equipment to help people in this state.

In some ways, the state has prepared itself since the Station nightclub fire. The hospitals have improved their communications and can track capacity in any hospital statewide quickly, which would help if there's a sudden surge of sick people needing care, said Peter Ginaitt, the director of emergency preparedness for the Lifespan Hospital Network, and Dr. David Gifford, the director of the state Department of Health. [email protected] / (508) 277- 7213

Originally published by Amanda Milkovits, Journal Staff Writer.

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