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Last Updated

17 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post, January 29, 2002.

Survey Finds Counties Unready for Bioterrorism

Official Says More Federal Aid Needed

By Bill Miller, Washington Post Staff Writer

Most of the nation's county public health departments are not adequately prepared to respond to a biological or chemical terrorist attack, with the biggest deficiencies found in small communities and rural areas, according to a survey released yesterday.

"Many departments are so under-funded, understaffed and under-trained that they are not ready to effectively handle a major crisis," said Javier Gonzales, president of the National Association of Counties, which commissioned the survey.

The study, which involved 300 of the nation's 3,066 counties, highlights the need for federal assistance in dealing with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the anthrax outbreak and the potential for additional terrorist strikes, Gonzales said.

Only 9.7 percent of the counties said they were fully prepared to deal with a biological attack and only 5 percent said they were ready to handle public health needs arising from the use of chemical weapons, Gonzales said.

Although most county health departments had taken some steps to get ready, 21 percent reported they weren't prepared at all for a bioterrorism crisis, and 43 percent said they weren't prepared at all for chemical warfare, he said.

Most counties also reported having inadequate policies to enforce quarantines.

"This is a terrible situation," Gonzales, a county commissioner from Santa Fe, N.M., told an audience at the National Press Club. "Improvements must be made immediately, and a long-term plan for rebuilding the system must be developed," he said.

Congress approved a bioterrorism funding package that includes $865 million this year for state and local health departments.

President Bush plans to include $6 billion for bioterrorism prevention overall in the budget for fiscal 2003, but officials have not said how much of that money will reach states, cities and counties.

Gonzales also called on the Bush administration to sell "homeland security bonds" and offer a $1 income tax checkoff on federal returns whose proceeds would go to state and local governments.