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Last Updated

27 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, June 19, 2002.

Doctors to Check Up On Possible Terrorism

State Hires Specialists to Track Diseases

By Steven Ginsberg, Washington Post Staff Writer

A band of doctors will be dispatched across Virginia in coming months to track unusual health trends and keep tabs on everyday diseases, serving as the latest line of defense in the war on terror.

Using $22 million in federal funds, Virginia began hiring one epidemiologist and one bioterrorism coordinator for each of its 35 health districts this month.

Northern Virginia has five health districts -- Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties plus the City of Alexandria -- and officials said all the epidemiologists could be in place as soon as next month.

The federal funds, plus $1.8 million from the state, will also be used for laboratory testing, staff training and public education. In all, 130 people will be hired.

Last fall's anthrax scare, which took the lives of two employees at a postal facility in the District and hospitalized three other people, brought home the reality of bioterrorism and highlighted how difficult it can be for the area to deal with such an attack.

Under the Virginia Health Department program, which is to be permanent, specialists will be available to handle future attacks, and full-time personnel will watch for the spread of communicable diseases.

"If we're going to get on top of biological events, we need to do this 24-7," said Casey Riley, a state health department spokesman. "We don't really know in what form the next event will occur, but these people are your front line for any health attack or disaster."

Riley said a terror incident involving anthrax or smallpox is relatively easy to spot, though not necessarily easy to handle. But other equally insidious ways of attacking people with deadly diseases require the expertise of specialists, he added.

"When you get to smallpox or anthrax, those are the eye-openers," he said. "But the other ones that are fairly common, you've got to watch and make sure someone hasn't put a bug out there that is affecting people quickly."

Local health officials, mindful of the spontaneous and sometimes confusing response to the anthrax scare, said the added help would make an immediate and significant difference in their efforts.

"Being able to have an epidemiologist working on identifying and controlling communicable diseases and not having to pull assistance from other departments will be an enormous boon to our ability to respond," said Merni Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for Fairfax County.

Many Northern Virginia localities ran regional treatment centers during the anthrax scare, and officials said they were operated using resources from other departments and without clear leadership.

Had Fairfax had an epidemiologist on staff last fall, "it would have enabled us to be more prepared, and we would have been able to be more proactive, because we would have already had a resource to help us," Fitzgerald said.

On a day-to-day basis, assuming no terror attack occurs, the epidemiologists will be tracking more common diseases, Riley said. If, for example, a physician or hospital reports a few cases of salmonella, the epidemiologist would interview patients and their physicians, find out where and what they ate and seek causes of their illness.

In short, epidemiologists will be investigating "any unusual event or occurrence that would suggest not a typical outbreak of disease," Riley said.

Anne Terrell, nurse manager for Prince William County, said such a person has been needed since well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We have needed someone whose job it was to be first in to respond to an unusual communicable disease or disease situations," she said. "Right now, when that happens, we muster what resources we have from staff that already has other jobs to do, and we piece it together."

Terrell also noted that local officials' major question during the anthrax scare was what to do next. With specialists on board, that shouldn't be a problem, she said.

Susan Allan, health director for Arlington, said officials there have "greatly increased day-to-day activities in monitoring diseases" since Sept. 11, particularly because the Pentagon and other critical government infrastructure are in their domain. The added expertise will be more than welcome, she said.

"The more help the better," Allan said. "We've got important work for them to do."