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Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 4, 2001.

What feds won't give CDC, Marcus will

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

Atlanta philanthropist Bernard Marcus is trumping the federal budget process, pledging $3.9 million so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can buy equipment to handle bioterror emergencies.

The gift from the Marcus Foundation to the CDC Foundation will go for satellite phones, secure videoconference equipment, global positioning receivers and other devices the CDC needs, said Marcus, the co-founder and former chairman of Home Depot.

"For them to get this equipment through the federal government is a hassle, so we are taking that hassle away from them," he said. "We are going to get it, buy it and give it to them."

Marcus, a board member of the CDC Foundation, was moved to make the gift after hearing that CDC staff members who arrived in New York on Sept. 11 could not communicate because cellphone networks had gone down.

"To find out what was happening to their people, [CDC staff in Atlanta] had to pull TVs into an auditorium and get their information from the networks," Marcus said. "Every TV network, every radio station has secure satellite phones, but this organization does not."

Marcus is a member of Friends of the CDC, a group of high-profile business people -- including Kent "Oz" Nelson of UPS and Phil Jacobs of BellSouth -- who have lobbied Congress to fund the CDC's rebuilding plan.

Included in that plan -- though not in the current White House budget proposal -- is an Emergency Operations Center to replace the auditorium where the CDC based its response to last fall's anthrax alerts. Some of the gear to be bought with Marcus' gift is intended to equip the new operations center, he said.

"When they have the building to put it in, we will help them set the equipment up and pay for that," he said. "But the satellite phones, the conferencing equipment, they can have those things almost immediately, so they will be ready for the next outbreak."

The federal government eventually might authorize the chronically underfunded CDC to buy such equipment, Marcus said, but he was unwilling to wait.

"This is not a political discussion -- this is about what do they need and who can provide it," he said. "I have grandchildren. I am concerned about their health and welfare. I can't wait for the federal government to see to that: If I can do it, I will."

C. Charles Stokes, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, said the group hoped to leverage the Marcus gift by persuading companies to donate or provide at a discount equipment the CDC needs.

The CDC Foundation, one of several nonprofit groups that support government agencies, also is soliciting donations to a $2 million emergency response fund that would allow the agency to hire short-term staff in emergencies. Last week the foundation announced a $2 million grant from Eli Lilly and Co. that would allow scientists from developing nations to study in laboratories at the CDC.

"All of these gifts, in one way or another, are helping ensure that people in this country are better protected in future emergencies," Stokes said.