ANNAPOLIS – The tale of Maryland’s few months dealing with bioterrorism can be told in statistics – two dead of anthrax out of 85 cases investigated, 30 mail rooms tested for spores, 3,000 antibiotic prescriptions dispensed to workers believed to have been exposed.
Twenty state laboratory scientists and assistants worked between 16- and 24-hour days to test more than 1,250 samples from sites and human tissue for anthrax, delaying 3,000 non-anthrax microbial tests from local health departments three to four days.
And staff from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s tuberculosis, AIDS and immunization programs put their own investigations on hold to help disease surveillance workers handle more than 100 phone calls a day.
The statistics, presented in a DHMH report released this week, showed officials just how much of a strain bioterrorism can put on the health department’s resources. Staffing and equipment concerns have department heads impressed but hoping for funding to increase DHMH’s capacity to handle health emergencies.
“Things that probably concern me the most are manpower issues, particularly in our lab,” said Deputy Secretary for Public Health Arlene H. Stephenson. “We’re hoping for additional funding to be coming to the state, and we’re hoping we’ll get a big chunk of that to help with supplies, equipment, communication and surveillance.”
State health workers have been able to cut caseload demand in part by educating health care providers statewide, Stephenson said, reaching about 150 care providers a week through training programs on bioterrorism.
To meet demand for lab testing, the department tapped and trained scientists from other divisions and local health departments, she said.
The department enhanced its disease surveillance capabilities immediately after Sept. 11, Stephenson said, when authorities first suspected terrorist activity.
She credits the department’s preparations to handle incidents to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund conference in the district scheduled for September. The conference was canceled, but preparations to coordinate with other agencies paid off – seven state agencies and several health care organizations cooperated with the department to provide testing, surveillance and treatment for anthrax in Maryland.
Despite the department’s heavy load, Stephenson said Maryland resources, particularly state laboratories, are still up to par nationally.
“We received samples from Northern Virginia and other states (for testing) and I’d always ask, `Why are you sending these to us?'” said Stephenson. “And they always said, `Because you have the best lab.'”