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Bioterrorism Preparedness - 2001-10-24

The Bush administration has proposed spending about $1.5 billion to protect Americans from bioterrorism, but some lawmakers and many health officials say that will not be enough money to do the job. They say many local health and emergency officials need equipment, medication and training.

Most of the money in the Bush administration's proposed bioterrorism defense package would be used to stockpile antibiotics and vaccines. A group of lawmakers is calling on the government to spend another two-billion dollars above what the administration proposes. Some of that money would help local communities develop plans to spot and fight bioterrorism.

Congressman Rod Blagojevich of Chicago says the fact that two Washington D.C. postal workers died of anthrax before anyone realized they were infected with the bacteria underscores the importance of training local health officials to recognize when a biological attack has occurred. "No explosion, no plane crash, no single catastrophic event," he says. "Instead, a biological attack is silent. It could go, as we saw with the postal workers in Washington, undetected for hours or even days."

The proposal supported by Congressman Blagojevich also calls for substantial spending to improve local defenses against biological attacks including equipment and training for local emergency officials. The American Public Health Association says many local health departments are not well-prepared to fight such an attack. The group says at least ten percent of the nation's public health departments do not have e-mail, and only one in five has a plan to deal with a biological assault.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley says the city and suburbs are in an unprecedented state of preparedness for such an attack, but want to be even better prepared. Local governments are working to improve communications among various police and fire departments. City Fire Commissioner James Joyce says they are also asking the federal government for money to help create a regional emergency team that would be responsible for hazardous materials spills or attacks, rescuing people from high-rise buildings or evacuating people from subways. "We are looking to form a highly-skilled, highly-equipped regional team made up of firefighters from many different fire departments, all trained in various specialties," says Mr. Joyce.

Chicago's postal facilities are also taking steps to protect workers from anthrax or other hazardous materials sent through the mail. Workers are given daily safety briefings and can request masks and latex gloves for protection. The president of the local branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers, James Worsham, says safety precautions are constantly being reviewed. "I think that is something we are going to have to do day-by-day," says Mr. Worsham. "As we see opportunity to provide better protection, I think we should capitalize on it. But at this point, I just don't know of anything else that can be done that will protect them." The U.S. Postal Service is sending 37-million cards to homes and businesses nationwide, instructing people how to spot suspicious letters or packages and what to do if they receive one. Officials say the likelihood that the average American would receive a dangerous letter or package at home is very slight.