YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Anthrax Fears Tax Health Departments

Science: Testing and preparation overwhelm many state labs at the expense of other tasks.

November 15, 2001|Associated Press

DENVER — The last few weeks have left Colorado health officials swamped. Routine research is being shelved, scientists are being reassigned and grant writing is just a memory.

Anthrax-tainted letters may not have made their way out West, but their effects certainly have.

Across the nation, the story is the same. State health officials are overwhelmed as they concentrate on anthrax testing and emergency preparedness in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and anthrax infections on the East Coast.

Employees put in extra hours and come in on weekends. Some agencies are running up big bills for overtime and other costs. A few researchers even fear they will miss the outbreaks of other diseases.

"We're getting dangerously close to being at capacity," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, president of the Assn. of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Redirecting epidemiologists from their work to the current scare limits the ability to respond to some other possible epidemic, he said.

Since the first anthrax case was reported Oct. 4, many state labs have reported being inundated with samples to be tested for anthrax, prompting agencies to reassign epidemiologists.

Labs in numerous states that used to conduct several tests a year for anthrax have done thousands of such tests in the last six weeks. It's too early to determine how much the additional testing will cost, directors said.

The need to reshuffle resources to deal with bioterrorism concerns highlights a lack of funding that has been eroding the nation's public health infrastructure for decades, Benjamin said.

Relatively few people have been infected with anthrax, he said, but even the work associated with that response has been difficult to manage.

At the Maryland health department that Benjamin directs, employees have fallen behind in entering computer data and monitoring other diseases.

"If we miss a disease because that data didn't go in or we couldn't track it, that's a worst case," he said. "It shows we need to fix the public health infrastructure now."

Colorado Health Department Director Jane Norton said that a retiree has been brought back to work to help answer phone calls and that four epidemiologists have been reassigned to work on anthrax-related issues. No cases of anthrax have occurred in Colorado, but there have been several scares--a scene that has played itself out across the country.

"We've had about 10,000 false alarms coming in through state and local health departments, which has certainly taxed them," said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's definitely been an interruption, but it's one of those you don't really think of as an interruption because it has to be done," said Doug McBride, spokesman for Texas' health department. "It's a justifiable interruption."

His agency, which gets about $1.5 billion in state funds each year, recently asked for an additional $12 million, most of which would be to hire more epidemiologists and buy new equipment.

Los Angeles Times Articles