Preparing for an emergency.
What happens when a disaster shuts down public health laboratories? Under normal conditions, these labs provide a range of critical services, including newborn screening, biological and chemical terrorism testing, and infectious disease tracking. In an emergency, working laboratories analyze water and food supplies and monitor disease outbreaks. In emergencies that involve biological, chemical or radiological agents, public health labs analyze the threat and identify affected individuals.
Sometimes disasters, however, can weaken or overwhelm a laboratory's ability to respond. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Louisiana State Public Health Central Laboratory was almost completely incapacitated. It flooded and lost phone service, fresh water and electricity. In addition, only 10 percent of staff was available.
To continue to provide critical services--such as microbiological testing of drinking water, statewide newborn screening services, and pathogen surveillance in the disaster area--Louisiana needed help from public health laboratories in neighboring states. Through agreements the state had made, the University of Iowa started conducting all newborn screening, and Arkansas and Texas began safe drinking water testing. Alabama performed bioterrorism testing for Louisiana.
The Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a law approved by Congress in 1996, encourages all states to enter into interstate agreements that can improve collaboration; increase access to personnel, equipment and resources; and address legal issues related to worker compensation, liability, credentialing and reimbursement. It directs ways for states to request assistance and receive support from other states. The law also establishes protocol for reimbursing states, and limits liability for states offering assistance.
For more information on the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, visit www.emacweb.org.