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22 Jan 2003

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 25, 2001.


Anthrax scare likely to bring long-awaited funding to agency

By  M.A.J. McKenna, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

It is hard to imagine there's an upside to the recent anthrax attacks.

But the first fatal bioterrorist attack on U.S. soil has focused attention on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its long history of low funding for labs, offices and equipment. In the wake of the attacks, the agency might, for the first time in decades, get as much funding as it says it needs.

The CDC's scrambling to set up a nerve center, dispatch investigators and expand its anthrax labs have highlighted longtime problems -- tight quarters, aging buildings and electrical and ventilation systems so overloaded they cannot support technology now considered basic to science.

In response, federal lawmakers and the Bush administration have vied to throw money at the agency. Its fiscal year 2002 appropriation for buildings and facilities, currently being negotiated, has risen from $150 million in the president's budget to $175 million in the budget plan proposed by the House of Representatives and $250 million in the Senate plan.

Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) and Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) have introduced bills to increase the amount even more. And additional money for the CDC is packaged in huge bioterrorism proposals moving through Congress, including $1.5 billion of the president's $40 billion measure and $3.2 billion in a proposal by Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass).

The extra funds will arrive at an agency that is already one year into a major rebuilding plan. That overhaul and the additional funding to combat bioterrorism are likely to create long-term change at the CDC.

Staff steadily enlarged

The CDC began building what is now its headquarters campus at 1600 Clifton Road in 1947, a year after its founding, and later expanded onto a 50-acre parcel at Buford Highway and Chamblee-Tucker Road. Though the agency has steadily enlarged its staff -- it hired additional personnel each of the past 10 years -- its construction and maintenance appropriations, granted year to year by Congress, never kept pace. To house all its workers, it rents offices in 25 additional locations around Atlanta.

By the time Dr. Jeffrey Koplan was named CDC director in 1998, conditions were desperately overcrowded. Restrooms and janitors' closets had been seized for work space. Cubicles for temporary offices sprouted in lobbies. New equipment, including some for the bioterrorism program created in 1999, remained crated in hallways because there were no spare labs.

Tightly packed workers taxed the buildings' systems: Dripping air-conditioning ducts led to damp ceiling tiles whose mold growth threatened to contaminate tests. Failure of an electrical line in the first days of the anthrax investigation shut down lab work for almost 15 hours, but previous power outages in some labs lasted for days.

Koplan intended to expand the CDC's focus into obesity and tobacco research but found any significant new research would require renovations first. "If you had asked me before I took this job what my highest priority would be, buildings and facilities would not even have been on the list," he said.

The result was the master rebuilding plan, which initially called for $1 billion over 10 years -- about $140 million a year for the first five years and $40 million a year for the rest. The CDC's overall budget is about $4 billion a year, though 70 percent is sent on to state and local health departments.

In the plan's launch year, fiscal year 2000, the CDC got $57 million for building upgrades and repairs. That was a significant increase from $30 million the previous year, but not enough to start the master plan. It paid for hiring architects to design several hoped-for buildings. In 2001, thanks to lobbying by the Friends of the CDC, a group of Atlanta business leaders, the agency for the first time got enough money to begin the renovation work -- $175 million.

With the money awarded so far, the CDC has made significant changes. Some are visible from Clifton Road. The agency bought and cleared 19 acres on the northern edge of its property for new buildings and a secure perimeter. The Clifton Child Development Center, a day care shared by CDC and Emory University employees, will move next year to the northeast corner of the new property. Its current location in a bungalow on Clifton Way puts it near the heart of the redesigned campus.

The agency has also completed the Roybal Infectious Disease Laboratory, a tall, multicolored building with a curving metal roof that stretches north to south across what was a parking lot. That lab, built at a cost of $177 million, now houses several hundred scientists working with disease organisms whose handling requires only moderate levels of biological security. The move eases the crowding in older labs so they can be renovated.

A 390,000-square-foot lab for emerging infectious diseases and a new utility plant are under construction at Clifton and will be occupied in 2004.

In Chamblee, a new environmental health lab will be completed in January. So will the first phase of a small new lab focused on parasitic diseases, with the second phase coming a year later. A specimen storage facility has already been completed, allowing the agency to move more than 9,000 microscope slides and samples of environmental materials, collected over 50 years, out of an aging laundry facility that had been crammed full of freezers from Sears.

Other changes, though, still are subject to the federal budget process. Adding the extra acreage allows the CDC to reshape the campus with security in mind, by placing the labs in the center of a ring of office buildings, parking decks and green space. The ring already exists in part, but the buildings that complete it -- an additional office building, new parking decks and a visitors center -- are budgeted years down the road.

In addition, the CDC has received enough money to pay for designs for a toxicology lab in Chamblee, which will focus partly on chemical weapons, and buildings at Clifton that will house a full-time operations center and new communications facilities. But it has not received construction funds for them; some might not come through until 2003.

"Each building has a design phase done by an architectural engineering firm, followed by construction," said Virginia Shankle Bales, the CDC's deputy director for management. "We are trying to stay ahead of the game by being poised to start construction when appropriations come through."

The fate of those buildings might be decided in the next few weeks as lawmakers decide the final budget for fiscal 2002, which began Nov. 1. Finishing the toxicology lab and beginning the communications center depends on the CDC's receiving the full $250 million appropriation recommended by the Senate.

The agency's private sector friends, backed by the Georgia delegation, hope for more than $250 million, enough to build up the CDC's communications networks and its ability to keep its property secure.