ANNAPOLIS – Bioterrorism experts have questions about how prepared Maryland’s agency coordination and hospitals are for a biological attack, as a state health official told state lawmakers he’s monitoring four proposed cases in the state.
State agencies dealing directly with the security issues raised said Maryland is more prepared than most states, but acknowledged there are challenges to overcome.
The threat of bioterrorism is moving closer to Maryland since the discovery over the weekend of anthrax in a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Cases of anthrax have been reported in New York and Florida, where one person died after being exposed to the deadly bacteria.
No one is infected with anthrax in Maryland so far, although the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is monitoring four “proposed cases,” said Secretary Georges Benjamin at a meeting of the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Benjamin’s office was unable to provide further explanation and Benjamin could not be reached later Tuesday.
Representatives from PSComm, a technology firm, and Electronic Warfare Associates warned of holes in the state’s emergency preparedness plan for bioterrorism.
“We’re facing a threat that will be different any time it manifests itself,” said John Cohen, PSComm president and chief executive officer.
With each new threat that arises, state and local governments will be the front line of defense to combat it and communication between various state agencies is the key to responding appropriately, Cohen said.
Communication between agencies has already been a problem in a recent crisis, when a truck carrying Navy missiles overturned on Interstate 70 near Myersville. None of the agencies responding to the crisis could communicate with each other on the radio because they were all using a different frequency, Cohen said.
Hospitals’ ability to respond to a large scale epidemic — anthrax or small pox, for example – also came under scrutiny.
Emergency rooms already have difficulty dealing with annual flu epidemics, so an outbreak affecting 100,000 to 500,000 people would overwhelm emergency rooms, said Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore, an emergency room physician.
“We can’t deal with the flu epidemic every year,” he said. “I’m concerned that we might be misplacing our focus.”
Benjamin said the likelihood of a large-scale epidemic is small.
Delegates also questioned if the state keeps records of private laboratory developments of biochemical products, including the amount of the agent on hand and to whom it is distributed.
More than 90 percent of the infrastructure in Maryland dealing with biochemical development is private. That needs to be kept in mind when considering how to prevent attacks, said Paul Wolfe with Electronic Warfare Associates.
Statistics on biochemicals in the private sector in Maryland was a question raised by Delegate James Hubbard, D-Prince George’s but state agencies couldn’t provide an answer.
Agencies also need to take the lead and communicate to the public what they need to do in case of a bioterrorist attack, delegates said.
“I don’t think the public has any sense of the nature of the threat on their own lives,” said Delegate Leon Billings, D-Montgomery.
Many delegates said their constituents have been asking them what steps they need to take and whom to call if they think they have been infected with anthrax.
“I’m optimistic we are ahead of the curve in terms of most states,” said Robert Bass, director for Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems. There are a lot of challenges that need to be overcome, but he said Maryland is currently working on a lot of questions that were raised today.
“Governments usually run on the perspective of cleaning up the mess after the mess starts,” Hubbard said, agreeing that Maryland was probably ahead of most states. Morhaim acknowledged the chance of a major bioterrorist threat is small but warned, “I don’t believe any amount of planning is going to manage that kind of thing.” – 30 – CNS-10-16-01