WASHINGTON – Maryland Health Secretary Georges Benjamin said Friday that public health officials nationwide will need a minimum of $1.5 billion from Congress to develop state infrastructures capable of handling future bioterrorist attacks.
Benjamin said the $1.5 billion figure was the absolute minimum needed per year, to keep states from going into the red to pay for bioterrorism preparation and defense.
“Otherwise, we would be filling holes” in their budgets, Benjamin said during a Friday conference call of state health secretaries representing the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
A recent in-house survey by that association showed that states have spent anywhere from $360,000 to $33 million responding to attacks, and threats of attacks, since Sept. 11.
In Maryland, state and local health departments have spent an unbudgeted $2 million since Sept. 11, said Benjamin. He added that the actual cost of dealing with the anthrax cases has been much higher.
He pointed out that the nation is still on high alert this week, after Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge reported the possibility of another terrorist strike planned around the upcoming holidays.
Benjamin noted that recent cases of anthrax contamination resulted in “chaos” with only a small number of infected letters. The potential impact on the public health system that could be caused by more infected letters, he said, is “unfathomable.”
The bottom line, he said, is that public health capacity is limited. While public health officials are still heavily involved in surveillance and testing of anthrax cases, Benjamin said it is essential that no one lose sight of the dire need for the development of infrastructure.
Benjamin said that for this reason, the investment in a public health infrastructure capable of handling bioterrorism should be ongoing, not just a one-time affair.
He and other state health commissioners on Friday’s conference call agreed that one step in that direction is the development, in each state, of an emergency health powers act.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested model legislation that, if adopted by the states, would let health departments respond more aggressively to a potential problem, with quarantines, secret meetings and other extraordinary measures.
The state health commissioners also agreed that better communication systems that would allow for secure, real-time connections between state and local health organizations are of utmost importance right now.
A strong network of laboratories, better systems of surveillance and more personnel are also fundamental, they said.