Florida's Health Department is receiving an infusion of federal funds to revamp its bioterrorism detection and response mechanisms in the wake of last year's anthrax scare.
Weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the nation's attention suddenly shifted to Florida, which recorded the first of what would be several fatal anthrax cases in the United States. Just as unnerving, investigators discovered that one of the September 11 hijackers had attempted to acquire a crop-dusting plane that could have been modified to disperse chemical or biological agents over populated areas.
Jack Pittman heads Florida's Office of Public Health Preparedness, a state agency set up earlier this year to deal with biological and chemical threats stemming from terrorism and other causes. Mr. Pittman says his office will soon receive $40 million in federal funds to, among other things, link virtually every healthcare provider in the state via computer.
"What the funds will enable us to do is to expand surveillance systems; to be more inclusive of not only county health departments but also of hospitals and other medical partners; to do a lot of reporting, and to make it electronic so that if there is a disease outbreak we will be able to pick up on it a lot quicker and issue alerts," he said.
Mr. Pittman says, prior to September 11 and the subsequent anthrax outbreak, few people saw public health concerns as a matter of domestic security. Now, he says, the two are viewed as inextricably linked, which has forced public health officials in Florida and elsewhere to review and revamp their procedures for detecting and dealing with potential threats.
"We looked at issues like hospital preparedness and emergency medical service preparedness," he said. "We looked at issues involving epidemiological surveillance, training, public information - across the spectrum of public health needs."
Mr. Pittman compares biological and chemical threats to another devastating phenomenon of a different sort: hurricanes. He says Florida has a great deal of experience dealing with hurricanes and has developed evacuation plans and other systems to protect the public. Mr. Pittman says, in the post-September 11 world, Florida must undertake similar planning and preparation when it comes to terrorism-related health threats.