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Last Updated

19 Oct 2002

Source:  San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 2002.

Experts see lax preparation for bio-warfare

But the Bay Area's readiness rated as comparatively high

Edward Epstein, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Washington -- A year after deadly anthrax mailed to two senators hit Capitol Hill, public health and emergency planning officials across the country are still pondering how to deal with the terrorist threat of a massive biological weapons attack.

Public health experts warn that an effective biological attack could be much more deadly than a chemical attack or the detonation of a so-called dirty bomb that would use a conventional explosive device to spread radiation. In the Bay Area alone, a Rand study released earlier this year warned, 200 pounds of anthrax "properly dispersed under optimum conditions" would cover 180 square miles and could kill millions.

In last October's incidents, five people died in Washington, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida; 17 became very ill, and thousands were exposed to the deadly anthrax spores. The poison was insidiously spread by being aerosolized, mixed with powder and placed in otherwise innocent-looking envelopes that were then mailed to people including Senate Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle at his Capitol office.

Working with federal authorities, Rand surveyed thousands of public health departments around the country in the wake of the anthrax attacks. The findings were worrisome.

It found that only 10 percent of public health departments and hospitals have mutual aid agreements that specifically deal with weapons of mass destruction.

Only about one-third of health departments and hospitals have plans for even a moderate-size biological incident.

The Bay Area, which like the rest of the country went into anxious high alert when anthrax struck the East Coast, is better prepared than many places.

The region's long-standing plans for dealing with earthquakes and fires meant that intense preparation for epic disasters already was in place. Authorities know, for instance, how many hospital beds are available at any time. An anthrax scenario had been discussed even before Sept. 11, 2001, said Lucien Canton, who directs San Francisco's Office of Emergency Services.

But the public's scared response to the anthrax attack caught officials by surprise.

"We never imagined we'd be getting 30 to 35 calls a day from jumpy people," he said, including those reporting everything from plaster dust to flour.

"It forced us to get together to prioritize our response in the event of another incident," Canton added.

In light of last year's attacks, hospitals around the country have been advised to keep small stocks of the antibiotic Cipro and anthrax vaccine on hand for the first wave of an emergency, before national help can arrive.

California has provided more lab services for quick identification of biological agents and has opened a laboratory in Richmond that federal authorities have designated the "Western regional reference lab" for detecting poisonous chemicals.

Doctors have been advised to report any unusual outbreaks or deaths to public health departments, said Dr. Tomas Aragon, director of epidemiology and disease control for the San Francisco Public Health Department.

In taking a low-tech and selective approach to such reporting, San Francisco is bucking a national trend of using computer networks for "syndromic surveillance" to collect data on disease outbreaks.

"It's incredibly expensive, and besides, it's the first cases of something that tip off alert physicians," Aragon said, adding that alert doctors are the best first line of defense.