GAO finds bioterror protection gaps

States are still not fully prepared to respond to bioterrorism or other public health threats, according to a Congressional investigation.

States also lack the ability to evaluate, diagnose and treat large numbers of patients during a health crisis, known as surge capacity. They also lack regional planning for such crises. State plans are still being finalized, said Janet Heinrich, director of healthcare and public health issues with the General Accounting Office.

She provided testimony to the House Government Reform Committee today about public health preparedness based on a GAO report on federal bioterrorism preparedness programs.

About half of the states said their health departments can receive and evaluate disease reports around-the-clock, but few can rapidly detect an outbreak of an influenza-like illness. Few states have improved links between their public health and animal surveillance systems to monitor diseases in animals that can be transmitted to humans, such as the West Nile virus, according to testimony.

Although it is improving, communication among public health officials, healthcare providers, emergency management agencies and the public remains a challenge, officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Health Alert Network, a communications backbone in development for several years, has been expanded, the report said. States said participating local public health departments cover at least 90 percent of their populations, but many said they're still in the process of assessing their communication needs. Few have a process in communicating with the public when an incident occurs, GAO officials found.

Laboratory capacity and state workforces dealing with public health have also improved, but many states still have concerns about those areas. The federal government has not completed plans for responding to a flu pandemic and state response plans are in various stages of completion. State plans for using the Strategic National Stockpile are also incomplete, according to the GAO investigation.

Through cooperative agreements, the CDC and Health Resources and Services Administration have provided significant sums of money to states for strengthening their bioterrorism protection, GAO said. Through Aug. 30, 2004, CDC will distribute $870 million for state bioterrorism preparedness and response and HRSA, which supports improving hospital capacity, will distribute $498 million.

The Bush administration has said one of its top priorities is to improve the public health infrastructure to combat bioterrorism and respond to natural disease outbreaks. Efforts include deploying sensors around the country and upgrading electronic information sharing systems, to name a few.

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