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Federal Funds Have So Far Failed to Improve State Biological Defenses, Report Says

By David McGlinchey

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — Despite federal efforts to pump funding and life into nationwide bioterrorism preparedness programs, state governments have not effectively prepared for a bioterrorism attack, a nonpartisan public health advocacy group announced today (see GSN, Dec. 9).

Only two states — Florida and Illinois — have enough public health workers to distribute strategic vaccine stockpiles in the aftermath of a biological attack, according to the Trust for America’s Health.

Over the past two years, Congress has put almost $2 billion toward biological defenses but states have only marginally improved their readiness, according to the report, Ready or Not? Protecting the Public’s Health in the Age of Bioterrorism. State budget crunches, bureaucratic red tape and a public health workforce crisis are hurting the effort, said trust officials who spoke to reporters today.

“The money is not doing the job,” said Lowell Weicker, the president of the trust’s board of directors and a former U.S. senator and Connecticut governor.

The report uses 10 categories to assess each state’s readiness for a bioterrorist attack. The District of Columbia and 41 states scored a five or lower on the 10-point scale, which measures public health spending, availability of public health personnel and laboratories, bioterrorism planning and information sharing.

California, Florida, Maryland and Tennessee were the most prepared states, each registering a seven on the scale. Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico and Wisconsin were the least prepared, with a score of two.

“We are not ready,” Weicker said.

The report also found that 32 states and the District of Columbia reduced public health funding from fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2003. Michigan (a 24-percent cut) and Massachusetts (a 23-percent cut) had the largest reductions.

“At the very time that federal money is going to the states … the majority of them are reducing their own budgets,” said trust Executive Director Shelley Hearne. She said it was disturbing that the cuts came in the midst of an overall push for stronger homeland security.

“We need accountability out there,” according to Hearne. There is, she said, a “lack of transparency and information that is available on what’s happening at the state level.”

Despite the generally negative findings, the report found some progress, according to Hearne. Communications between public health departments has markedly improved and every state has developed a plan to respond to bioterrorism. Even those plans, however, raised some questions.

“These are overarching game plans but are lacking in detail and specificity,” according to Hearne. She said that there is a “huge variability in the quality and detail of those plans.”

“Progress has been made but we have a lot further to go,” Hearne added.

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