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FOR RELEASE: September 8, 2003
CONTACT: Pamela Williams
Office of Communications
405/271-5601

Post 9/11: Are We Any Better Prepared?

Are we any better prepared?

That’s the question Oklahoma State Department of Health officials are pondering as the nation approaches the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the bioterrorism events that followed.

“These past two years have been unprecedented for public health in Oklahoma,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Leslie Beitsch. “Our charge has been to make certain that we have the capacity to prevent illness and injury resulting from acts of terrorism. While we can’t prevent these acts from occurring - that is the role of law enforcement - we have intensified our vigilance to ensure we are prepared to take appropriate action should such attacks occur.”

Beitsch noted that it is not unusual for the public health community to respond to such public health emergencies as outbreaks of infectious diseases or acts of nature. And the 1995 bombing of the federal Murrah Building in Oklahoma City proved that Oklahoma could also respond to the challenges of terrorism. “Even so, dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 and the very real threat of bioterrorism, as evidenced by the mailing of letters containing anthrax, demonstrated gaps in Oklahoma’s - and our nation’s - public health systems,” he said.

In response, the federal Department of Health and Human Services provided funding to states in 2002 and again last week to strengthen public health preparedness efforts and to help hospitals and other health care providers develop the “surge” capacity necessary to deal with mass casualty events. Funds were awarded through cooperative agreements designed to upgrade infectious disease surveillance and investigation; enhance hospital readiness to deal with bioterrorist events; expand laboratory and communications capacities; improve disease reporting between health departments, hospitals, and other health care providers; and expand smallpox preparedness planning.

“We have used these funds to invest in Oklahoma’s health,” Beitsch said. “They will bolster our surveillance and response capabilities for a bioterrorism attack or the latest emerging disease, such as SARS or West Nile virus.”

Beitsch said progress has been made in reducing inadequacies within the public health system as a result of activities accomplished in the following areas during the last two years:

  • Established the Bioterrorism Preparedness Division within the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
  • Established partnerships with state and local agencies to develop plans to mobilize the local resources of communities so they can better coordinate with state and federal officials to respond to a bioterrorism event.
  • Supported planning efforts with hospitals on emergency preparedness, including preparing for mass casualties.
  • Revised Oklahoma’s reportable disease rules to make certain bioterrorism agents are immediately reportable.
  • Established public health and hospital-based smallpox response teams.
  • Improved laboratory diagnostic capabilities through development of a rapid delivery system of specimens to the State Public Health Laboratory, and purchased state-of-the-art equipment to diagnose suspected biologic agents.
  • Used the Health Alert Network system to link the state health department and local county health departments with hospitals and other health care facilities to detect and communicate health threats related not only to bioterrorism, but emerging infectious diseases, chronic diseases and environmental hazards.
  • Developed a plan to access the Strategic National Stockpile of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies that may be needed to disperse to locations within the state during a public health emergency; for example, mass immunization clinics or distribution of antibiotics to an entire community.
  • Planned and initiated Sooner Spring, a series of mock exercises and drills conducted in four Oklahoma communities featuring simulated biologic agents. This event provided numerous experiences to help the state plan for future threats and public health emergencies.
  • Provided extensive training on disease and outbreak investigation for local county health department nurses, sanitarians, county administrators and hospital personnel.
  • Upgraded distance learning technologies to support public health communications and training for county health department personnel, especially those in rural areas of the state.
  • Developed a crisis communications plan to alert the public and provide direction during a public health emergency, including a terrorist attack or biologic event.

“Collectively, these measures have provided real gains for Oklahoma’s public health system so that we are better prepared to respond to a public health crisis event, such as an intentional release of smallpox,” Beitsch said. “What’s missing are the components necessary to respond to acts of chemical or radiological terrorism. And we still have work to do with our hospital partners, who play a critical role in identifying and responding to any potential terrorism event or infectious disease outbreak. We are working closely with them on plans to expand hospital beds, develop isolation capacities, identify additional health care personnel, and provide trauma and burn care during mass casualty events.

“Quite frankly, given the events of the world today, we may never be able to be prepared for all that could befall us, but we can certainly strive to be as prepared as our science, technologies and manpower support will allow us to be.”

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