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HEALTH CHIEF SEEKS FUNDING ASSAULT WOULD CHALLENGE RESOURCES, STATE OFFICIAL WARNS CONGRESS.

Byline: Bill Hillburg Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - California's top health official urged Congress on Friday to increase funding for state and local agencies that would be the first line of defense against terrorist attacks with biological or chemical weapons.

``Public health resources would be significantly challenged following a biological or chemical attack,'' Diana Bonta, director of the California Department of Health Services, told the House Subcommittee on Governmental Efficiency, Financial Management and Governmental Relations.

Other witnesses appearing before the panel, chaired by Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Lakewood, criticized the federal government's bioterror response program, saying it lacked coordinated leadership, was rife with red tape and duplicated efforts.

Bonta said California now receives $2.5 million a year from the federal Centers for Disease Control to plan responses to an attack and to train personnel. The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services receives an additional $900,000 a year. The department serves the city of Los Angeles and other county areas except Long Beach and Pasadena, which have their own city health units.

Bonta's comments came a day after county and city health officials, meeting in Sacramento, cited a lack of resources and trained personnel.

Bonta and other experts said on Friday that advanced training in identifying and treating biological and chemical hazards is crucial. They noted that many deadly agents, including anthrax, first manifest themselves with the same symptoms as flu or a common cold.

Ken August, Bonta's deputy, said California is probably better prepared for an attack than most states.

``We're used to disasters with fires, floods and earthquakes and we have proven plans for response,'' he said. He noted that the state opened a new disease detection lab in Richmond this year and has conducted a number of large-scale practice drills in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Bonta, who directed the Long Beach Health Department from 1988-99, also cited the high cost of responding to possible bioterror attacks. She said actions taken after a series of 1998 anthrax hoaxes in Los Angeles and Long Beach cost taxpayers an estimated $1.5 million.

One of the 1998 hoaxes was staged by Harvey Craig Spelkin, a Calabasas man who called in an anthrax threat to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Woodland Hills as a ploy to delay his hearing. The courthouse was closed and 91 people had to be examined and quarantined for eight hours. Spelkin was fined $600,522 to cover the county's costs.

``Despite billions of dollars in spending on federal emergency programs, there are serious questions as to whether the nation's public health system is equipped to handle such a massive chemical or biological attack,'' said Horn.

His concerns were echoed by Janet Heinrich, director of public health issues for the U.S. General Accounting Office. Her GAO report, accompanied by a maze-like organizational chart, noted that bioterror responsibilities, including programs to assist local and state health departments, are spread among more than 20 federal agencies.

A recent GAO report on terrorism outlined similar problems among federal intelligence and law enforcement units. This week the watchdog agency also cited flaws in the Pentagon's count of protective biohazard suits for its troops.

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PREPARING FOR AN ATTACK WITHOUT PRECEDENT

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 6, 2001
Words:551
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