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Last Updated

13 Feb 2003

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 13, 2003

CDC focuses on 'highest' risks

Agency won't say if Atlanta is among sites

By M.A.J. McKENNA, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with areas of the country considered "at highest risk" of attack, the agency's director said Wednesday.

"We have taken extra steps in those locations to ensure that the medical system is prepared to deal with the consequences," Dr. Julie Gerberding said.

The agency also has activated response teams that have been trained to deal with threats named last week by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge: chemical weapons, botulism and radioactive "dirty" bombs.

The team members, who were alerted several days before the code orange was made public Friday, have been told not to leave Atlanta. None have been sent to other cities, she said.

Gerberding declined to say which areas of the country are at highest risk or whether Atlanta is one of them.

The CDC declined to say how many people have been placed on alert. The teams would deploy if a state government asked for assistance. Or the federal government could direct them to do so under its emergency response plan, which was last used during the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001.

Higher levels of alertness are being observed at the CDC's various locations. Since the World Trade Center attacks, cars entering the campuses are randomly searched, visitors are escorted by staff or guards and everyone entering the buildings is put through airport-style security.

The CDC's 24-hour Emergency Operations Center moved two weeks ago to a newly built facility with secure communication links. The center is in a location that the agency will not identify except to say it is within the campus at 1600 Clifton Road.

Three times in the past two weeks, the center has tested its ability to conduct emergency videoconferences with federal agencies in Washington and with the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Additional employees and higher-ranking personnel are staffing the center, which Gerberding described as being in "watch mode."

"We have moved to a higher level of alertness, but in the world we all live in today, we always have to be prepared to respond to events," said Steven Adams, acting deputy director of the emergency operations center. "CDC is always vigilant, but we are a bit more prepared as the threat level moves up."

After last week's alert, the CDC sent out an emergency message on its Health Alert Network, an automated system that connects 50 state health departments, two-thirds of county health departments and major hospitals and managed care organizations. The message also was shared with poison control centers, which might be called on to handle cases of botulism poisoning.

The National Pharmaceutical Stockpile -- vaccines, medical supplies and antidotes cached at multiple undisclosed sites around the country -- also is on high alert.

"We have taken steps to make sure our stockpile has antidotes in it and people in communities can access them," Gerberding said.

Botulism toxin, which is produced by bacteria, causes progressive muscle weakness that begins with vision problems, descends through the body and within 36 hours can make it impossible to breathe. Antitoxin can reduce the symptoms if given soon after symptoms develop.