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Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

County organizes to counter biological or chemical attack County organizes to counter biological or chemical attack (September 11, 2002)

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

Emergency forces in San Mateo County -- and around the country -- have much better training for hazards such as fires, floods, downed bridges, and earthquakes, than the threats of biological or chemical attacks.

With this message in mind, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on August 20 launched a major program to prepare the county and its residents for a biological or chemical attack.

Funded by $1 million a year in federal homeland security funds, the county's program will focus on beefing up the ability of the public health service to identify and respond to the chemicals and bugs that terrorists might unleash upon unwary citizens.

Weapons of mass destruction are "a different animal" from other public health threats, Dr. Scott Morrow, the county's public health officer, told the board.

"The scale could be unimaginable," he said. "A biological event could be very, very widespread; it could be global. Smallpox is the worst."

National and state studies show public health services are woefully unprepared to counter these new challenges, Dr. Morrow reported.

With responsibilities that range from monitoring immunizations and nutrition, to education, clean water and safe food, public health agencies are not set up to identify obscure germs or chemicals, let alone foil them.

"Public health is the weakest link. We've allowed our public health infrastructure to deteriorate," he said.

The county program will include preparation of detailed plans to respond to bioterrorism; education and training; more and better biological laboratories; and improved coordination with law-enforcement and fire agencies.

The federal money, expected to continue at least through 2006-07, will also pay for nine-and-a-half new public health staff positions. These will include a bioterrorism planner, two part-time physicians, a community health educator, a hazardous materials specialist, an epidemiologist, a microbiologist, and a pubic health nurse.

The county also recently created a stockpile of vaccines and antidotes to common biological and chemical agents, which will be used to treat those who first respond to emergencies -- the county's police, firefighters and paramedics, said Margaret Taylor, the county's director of emergency medical services.

In a bioterrorism emergency, it could be at least 72 hours before San Mateo County could expect to receive outside help, making it vital for emergency personnel to stay healthy enough to keep doing their jobs, she said. Every hospital in the county pitched in to pay for the stockpile, which is being kept in an undisclosed location, she said.


 

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