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FOR RELEASE: September 8, 2003
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:
“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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