Dr. Robert Levin's vision for combating bioterrorism in Ventura County is clear and specific.
A biologist trained in tracking down deadly microbes would be stationed in a room surrounded by computers, said Levin, the county's top public health official. Those computers would track clusters of illness at schools, government offices and big businesses.
They also would chart unexplained "die-offs" of horses, chickens, squirrels--carriers of diseases that can be fatal to humans.
Anything unusual would immediately prompt questions to learn whether there is a common source. If so, preventive medicines would be administered and the sick quarantined to ensure they would not expose others.
It sounds drastic and scary, Levin concedes. But the county needs an early warning system that would allow health officials to quickly respond to an attack of germ warfare, whether biological agents are released here or in surrounding counties and brought here by unwitting carriers.
"What it comes down to is that people who are exposed to a biothreat may not be informed that they were just exposed," Levin said. "There will be a delay between exposure and people getting ill and we can use that delay to save thousands of lives."
The cost of putting such a system in place could approach $1 million, county chief Johnny Johnston said. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks make it clear the expense may be justified, he said.
"It was always a budget matter and nobody wants to think about this," Johnston said. "But over time, it might be money very well spent. Nobody would have believed that the World Trade Center could be taken to the ground."
An anti-terrorism task force has been meeting in Ventura County for more than two years. Participants represent the Sheriff's Department, fire agencies, FBI, the county's two military bases and public health offices, Undersheriff Craig Husband said.
Group Preparing for Several Scenarios
Task force members are redoubling efforts to prepare for several terrorism scenarios, Husband said. The task force will also meet more frequently.
"We've had a head start over most areas because of this working group," said Barry Fisher, the county's Emergency Medical Services coordinator. "We can tap into state and federal resources. Our fire departments out there are very well-trained. And we've started doing some education with the eight general hospitals."
The group may ask the Board of Supervisors later this year for additional equipment and personnel, Fisher said. But Husband and others say the county is generally well-prepared to respond to explosions or chemical attacks.
Hospital staff members have been briefed on decontamination procedures. Local health, emergency and law enforcement officials have drafted emergency plans and carried out mock exercises.
New security measures have been put in place for crop-dusting planes that could be used to spray toxins.
The biggest gap is local government's ability to detect an outbreak of illness stemming from terrorist activities, Levin said.
A chemical attack would be quickly apparent, he said. But illness caused by an airborne release of anthrax or pneumonic plague spores--two of the most dreaded agents of germ warfare--would be tougher to detect because they have an incubation period.
Doctors and other health professionals are required to report 84 communicable diseases to the county health department. But by the time victims go to the doctor, it may be too late to stop the spread of diseases that can be passed from person to person, Levin said.
If schools, governments and private businesses reported absences on a daily basis, perhaps by feeding data directly into the county's computers, a link would be uncovered much quicker, the public health chief said.
But that would take the willingness of public and private entities to feed that data to the county, he added.
Veterinarians, environmental health officers and law enforcement could also help by reporting animal deaths. They are mandated now only to report suspicious die-offs to the state, Levin said.
"We need those people to step forward and say, 'We will work with you. We want to be part of this early warning system,' " Levin said.
Doctors, nurses and emergency room staff members will be briefed on what to look for, and public health officials will be touring hospitals and holding seminars on the topic over the next few months, Levin said.
Federal officials have been planning against a bioterrorist attack for years, spending billions of dollars to stock supplies of antibiotics and identify patterns of illness. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta will ship barrels filled with appropriate drugs and other supplies within 12 hours of a reported attack, Levin said.
The spread of disease could be halted more quickly, however, if local governments are also prepared, he said.
But while anxious to get a detection system in place, Levin and others caution that people should not overreact.