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Last Updated

17 Mar 2003

Source: Newsday, March 17, 2003

Health Dept. Prepares for War

Agency set for national threats

By Deborah Barfield Berry, WASHINGTON BUREAU

 Washington - On the sixth floor of the federal Health and Human Services Department, a former conference room has been converted into a high-tech command center.

Created after the 2001 anthrax attacks, the $3.5-million command center is designed to help federal health officials deal with everything from bioterrorism to national epidemics.

These days, the agency is also preparing for war.

Huge plasma screens line the walls, including one showing a detailed map of Baghdad and another showing the spread of West Nile virus in this country. Computers store all kinds of information, from weather conditions around the world to the number of vacant hospital beds across the country.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said it's important in a biological, chemical or radiological attack to have a central location to coordinate an emergency response.

And with a potential war with Iraq looming, federal health officials say they must be ready for such attacks. Thompson said he doesn't put it past Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to resort to using biological weapons, such as smallpox.

"So many people in America don't think we are prepared," Thompson said. "We are very prepared, and we can respond quickly."

Last week, Thompson guided reporters on a tour of the command center, which opened in December. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal agency has expanded its network of labs, including some that are public, state-run or in academic settings, that can test for viruses.

It was after the anthrax attacks, Thompson said, that federal officials realized they lacked a central location to handle such crises.

Federal health agencies have been criticized for missteps and poor communication during the attacks, particularly the case of two postal workers (cases 15 and 16) in the Washington area who died of the deadly spores even after federal officials had been alerted to the possibility of contamination in their workplace.

Federal officials would not speculate on whether those lives could have been saved by a better-coordinated system.

Thompson and other officials refuse to talk about how the agency is specifically preparing for war. Yet on the wall, another of the 60-inch screens featured a map showing Saddam International Airport. Those maps, officials said, will be shared with other federal agencies if war begins.

Beyond war preparation, the command center, which has its own ventilation system in case of an attack in the area, tracks infectious diseases. Last week, a map of the spread of the West Nile virus showed counties across the United States shaded yellow where the virus had struck last year.

Already, the command center, which operates around the clock, has been used to monitor the spread of smoke from a pharmaceutical fire in North Carolina in January when it was thought it might harm people. More recently, the center used maps to track debris found from the Columbia space shuttle explosion and sent teams of disaster morticians to the deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island.

Other screens in the command center tune into 4,000 television broadcasts from around the world, including Al-Jazeera, an Arabic-language news station which has featured comments from Osama bin Laden.

In case of emergencies, the agency can instantly videoconference with up to 10 people, including governors and other state officials.

Also in the center, 26 workstations are set up for officials from other agencies, including the CIA, Homeland Security, the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency can activate 8,000 medical professionals, including experts in mortuary science, burns and bioterrorism, to respond to emergencies.

Through the command center, Thompson said the agency can also better manage the 600 tons of medical supplies and equipment stored in 12 undisclosed sites across the country. Those supplies, including antibiotics, could be shipped anyplace in the country within seven hours, federal officials say.