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Ventura County

County to Increase Terror Response

Funding: Health officials plan to use federal aid to improve preparations in case of biological attack.

June 08, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County government expects a $1-million infusion of federal aid to help public health officials do a better job of detecting and responding to bioterrorism threats.

Public Health Department officials have already received $200,000 and anticipate an additional $830,000 in coming weeks, Paul Lorenz, the department's director, said Friday.

The first chunk of money will be used to hire two new county employees--an administrator and a physician--who will coordinate efforts to fight bioterrorism. Other dollars will be spent upgrading the county's ability to rapidly detect a terrorist event and alert health-care providers and the public, Lorenz said.

With the county facing a multimillion dollar budget shortfall, the federal assistance is welcome, he said.

"This clearly will not only allow us to respond effectively, but it will strengthen our day-to-day capacity for tracking illnesses and community health problems," Lorenz said.

The initial focus will be on creating a computer database that could give health officials early warning about a bioterrorism attack. The system would rely on regular reporting of unexplained illnesses and absences by school administrators, governments and large businesses, said Dr. Robert Levin, the county's public health officer.

"We need a better capacity to gather information about illness that would give us a hint that something is going on," Levin said. "And we need a greater ability to talk to doctors across the county, maybe with bulletins for things we are suspicious about and things to be alert for."

Plans also call for upgraded laboratory facilities to handle tests for suspicious diseases and stockpiling drugs used to treat anthrax infections and illnesses such as small pox, he said.

The $1-million grant is Ventura County's share of $12.1 million that the state is distributing to help local governments prepare for the possibility of a bioterrorist attack. Local governments will split another $48.6 million once the state's own bioterrorism response plan is approved by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

The county's bioterrorism administrator would be paid about $65,000, Lorenz said. Salary for the physician slot would depend on experience and skills, he said. It may be difficult to fill the medical job because counties up and down the state will be competing for doctors who specialize in detecting patterns of illness, he said.

The bioterrorism specialist will work closely with Levin on "hundreds of big and little things that need to be done," the public health officer said.

For instance, Levin said, the county must develop a cache of certain medications should the need arise. But health officials can't just set aside boxes of drugs in a closet, he said, because they would eventually lose their effectiveness.

The alternative is to ask dozens of private drug stores to cooperate in keeping a rotating cache of pharmaceuticals on hand, he said.

Law enforcement officials said they, too, are expecting federal aid to help them combat terrorism. Sheriff Bob Brooks said money may be available in the next budget cycle.

Any federal help is appropriate, Brooks said: "In the attacks on the World Trade Center, the federal government stepped in only after the initial local effort. Much of the war on terrorism is going to be fought on the local level."

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