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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

County in Line for Anti-Terrorism Aid

Defense: Supervisors are expected to accept the $22,981 grant next week. Money is part of a national effort to protect residents in a biochemical attack.

March 04, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County is slated to receive a $22,981 grant as part of a national effort to protect residents in the event of a biochemical terrorism attack.

County officials stress there is no imminent threat of a biological attack.

The county's closest scare--notes mailed from Oxnard in 1998 claiming to contain samples of the deadly anthrax bacteria--were determined to be a hoax.

But Jim Eads, the county's emergency medical services disaster coordinator, said the two military bases in the county, as well as a large commercial port and proximity to Los Angeles, give the area some increased risk for terrorists attempting to contaminate air, water or food with infectious diseases or harmful chemicals.

"Hopefully, we don't ever have to go through this drill in real life," Eads said. "It's kind of scary when you think about it. But it's good to be prepared."

Officials concede $23,000 won't get them much: a short-term consultant, a computer and software programs to catalog mass symptoms, injuries or infection in a format that could be shared among local emergency workers, public health officials and law enforcement agencies.

Still, they will take what they can get. The Board of Supervisors is expected to formally accept the grant Tuesday.

Eads offered an example of how the system might work.

"Let's say we're at The Oaks mall, and nobody's aware of it but someone lets an agent out at this confined space with thousands of shoppers walking through. Everybody leaves and a couple of days later they come down with a respiratory illness and start inundating the emergency rooms," he said.

"We'd need a way to collect in rapid fashion the numbers of people, who they are and how to contact them, to provide treatment, or follow-up or maybe even isolation--to develop a system so that if hospitals and paramedics started to see a pattern, something that could potentially be linked back to an incident or a place, for the public health department to be notified and for law enforcement to be notified."

The National Centers for Disease Control gave the state Department of Health Services $375,000 to distribute among California's 15 most populous counties, with the exception of Los Angeles County, which is considered a serious enough target for bioterrorists that its grant came directly from the federal government.

Ventura County ranked 11th in funding. San Diego and Orange counties received the most from the state, just over $31,000 each.

Eads said counties receiving the grant will be asked to perform a threat analysis, which might take into account water supply, area business and other factors.

It's not clear, however, how much of that information will be shared with the public.

"Most places are not going to divulge what they see as a threat, because if it becomes a public record it becomes an additional invitation for terrorists," Eads said.

Eads said Ventura County's grant to battle biochemical terrorism will mesh with a federal grant to help the county Sheriff's Department prepare for all forms of terrorism. That grant is worth about $200,000, he said.

Sheriff's Department spokesman Eric Nishimoto said county residents should not worry too much about biochemical terrorism but should be aware that modern terrorism threatens any community, no matter how small or safe the community seems.

"Not to be alarmist, but the threat is greater now than it was 10 years ago or five years ago," he said.

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