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Ventura County

County Needs to Prepare More for Bioterrorism, Report Says

Health officials cite many shortcomings in response plan to an attack. 'We've got a long way to go,' says one.

October 19, 2002|JESSICA BLANCHARD | Special to The Times

Ventura County is years away from being adequately prepared for a bioterrorist attack, according to a new report by county health officials.

"If there were a bioterrorism attack today, the county would not be caught totally unprepared," said Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County's public health officer and one of the plan's authors. "But we've got much more to do in terms of specifics. We've got a long way to go."

Though county public health officials would be able to respond to a bioterrorist attack, they would be hampered by poor communication between health professionals and the public, the report states.

They would also be overwhelmed by the need for mental health services after an attack and slowed by the county laboratory's limited ability to test for bioterrorist agents, it states.

The county also lacks a plan for storing, managing and distributing the antibiotics, vaccines and hospital equipment that would be provided by the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile after an attack.

Addressing the county Board of Supervisors recently, Levin said the need for a better response plan is obvious, given the Sept. 11 attacks and the recent nightclub bombing in Bali that killed at least 188 people.

Supervisors then voted to accept a plan to develop more effective ways to track and contain bioterrorism in its early stages.

"Bioterrorism is very frightening to all of us," Supervisor Kathy Long said. "The more we can do to prepare ... is invaluable."

A large-scale bioterrorist attack could involve the release of anthrax, smallpox or botulism toxin. In a worst-case scenario, people would be infected with a communicable disease or the county's food or water supply could be contaminated, Levin said. The report notes that Ventura County, as a major producer and consumer of agricultural goods, could be vulnerable to such an attack.

In June, the Ventura County Public Health Department received about one-quarter of a nearly $1-million federal grant to assess the county's ability to handle a bioterrorist attack. The report is a blueprint for a more detailed plan. If the California Department of Health Services approves the initial report, the county will receive the rest of the $1 million.

Even then, county health officials say it will likely take several years before they can afford to follow up on all of the report's recommendations.

"The things we think are the most important and the most likely [to occur] are being dealt with earlier," Levin said. "If we had double or triple the money, we could probably do this faster, but we're just happy there's money available now."

Top priorities include creating an Internet-based system to streamline reporting of communicable diseases, coordinating efforts with neighboring counties and improving communication among the Public Health Department, doctors, hospitals and area residents, Levin said.

Other recommendations include upgrading the county's medical testing laboratory so it can conduct tests for biological agents; establishing ties between county public health officials and veterinarians to help track the spread of some diseases; and sponsoring workshops for health workers so they can quickly respond to outbreaks.

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Times staff writer Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.

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