Washington The federal government has truckloads of medicine and vaccines ready to deploy should bioterrorism strike, but only one state is fully prepared to receive and distribute those treatments.
Federal officials say that while states have made considerable progress in preparing for bioterrorism, much work remains.
"Our biggest concern is we will get to a location and a state or a city will not be ready," said Jerry Hauer, assistant secretary for public health preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Even Florida, the one state deemed ready to receive the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, still must conduct drills to make sure its plans will work.
Federal officials emphasize that states still could handle an emergency if they had to, even if they were not considered prepared. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when the stockpile was deployed for the first time, it took New York City officials "several valuable hours" figuring out where to send 50 tons of general medical supplies and how to secure them but eventually the medicine was delivered, said Steven Bice, who runs the program for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Friday was the deadline for states to report progress in preparing for bioterrorism. Key questions asked by HHS included how they would distribute medicine, where they could provide 500 hospital beds in case of mass casualties and how hospitals would isolate highly contagious patients.
Most regions are not prepared to dedicate 500 beds in an emergency, much less the 1,500 beds that they are supposed to have in place by next year, Hauer said. Even fewer communities have rooms in place inside hospitals that could used to isolate infectious victims of bioterror attacks.
Meanwhile, states have until Dec. 1 to produce detailed plans for vaccinating their entire populations within days of a smallpox attack. So far, plans have been filed by only 20 of the 62 states, large cities and territories that are receiving federal bioterrorism money. And those plans, not yet scrutinized, may have serious holes, health officials say.