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Last Updated

02 Apr 2003

Source: Washington Post, April 2, 2003

CDC Unveils New Command Center

Emergency Operations Facility Already in Use by SARS Researchers

By Ceci Connolly, Washington Post Staff Writer

ATLANTA, April 1 -- On her eighth day as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last summer, Julie Gerberding received a surprise visit from Vice President Cheney. When he asked to see the agency's emergency operations center, she cringed as she escorted him to a basement classroom stocked with folding tables and chalkboards.

"It was an embarrassment," she recalled. "We had first-class work in third-class facilities."

Today, with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson toting a congratulatory letter from President Bush, Gerberding presided over the formal dedication of the CDC's new $7.1 million command center -- a high-tech marvel that has already been pressed into service by the CDC team investigating the mysterious, deadly virus called severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

Since the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, the nation's public health community has scrambled to adjust to a changed world, shifting emphasis from naturally occurring bugs to deadly germs delivered by criminal means.

"We never expected in America to be in a position where we would see the day in our country where 19th-century illnesses and diseases could be used against us as a weapon," said Thompson, making his fifth visit to the agency in two years. One of the major weaknesses he identified after the anthrax episode was "our failure to have ways to communicate rapidly."

In Washington, Thompson took a former auditorium at HHS headquarters and converted it into his own secure command center. Gerberding, meanwhile, pushed for round-the-clock construction to complete the operations center here one year ahead of schedule. The CDC Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization created by Congress in 1995, helped raise close to $4 million in cash and equipment.

"We knew a year ago that CDC urgently needed a state-of-the-art facility to coordinate responses to public health emergencies," said Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, former board chairman of the CDC Foundation. Marcus's family foundation gave $2 million to the space that now bears his name, the Marcus Emergency Operations Center. "But we did not know if adequate government funding would be available to quickly build the kind of facility that CDC leaders envisioned."

He also credited former CDC director Jeffrey Koplan for initiating the public-private partnership. "He just wouldn't let up," Marcus said, with Koplan, now a vice president at Emory University, in the audience. "It wasn't a tough sell."

The CDC intended to throw today's party, complete with hors d'oeuvres and wealthy donors, in the new operations center. But on March 14, Gerberding opened the doors to the growing team of experts investigating the SARS virus.

During a brief tour today, the large open space, surrounded by private meeting rooms, hummed with activity as the SARS caseload continued to grow to more than 1,800 worldwide. On the walls were large plasma video screens that project maps and images for tracking disease outbreaks in the United States and globally.

"This is a war room for health," said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R). "This is real time information that gives us a head start on disease, on outbreaks, on epidemiology, whether it's SARS, West Nile, anthrax or anything else that comes our way."

Illuminated billboards posted today's threat level (high), told the time in a half-dozen locations and identified each specialty team (logistics or epidemiology). The 7,000-square-foot facility has secure communications, separate air systems and elaborate computer equipment. For the SARS investigation, team leaders meet in the operations center twice a day to coordinate the 160 CDC personnel involved, as well as investigators from the World Health Organization, state and local health departments, and foreign countries. The group oversees collection, transport and analysis of specimens; separate information hotlines for potential patients and doctors; and the teams that greet flights arriving into the United States from Asia.

Thompson, who has been proudly giving tours of his own command center in Washington, was impressed. "I thought the one I had at the Humphrey Building was the best until I came here," he said.