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Small-town fears in face of bioterrorism

Study: Less-populated counties not prepared for threats

Study: Less-populated counties not prepared for threats

By Mike Fish

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- With the United States rushing to protect itself in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a new survey raises fears that small-town America is being left behind.

More than half the nation's counties with populations of less than 10,000 report they are unprepared to respond to a bioterrorism attack, according to a survey of county public health departments. The study, compiled by the National Association of Counties, was released Monday.

The preparedness levels for a chemical attack highlighted similar shortcomings, the survey showed. Seventy percent of the smallest counties said they are not prepared, while almost half of the nation's counties with populations of at least 100,000 offered the same assessment of their capability to handle a chemical attack.

In-Depth: How prepared is your city? 

Completed this month, the survey found 75 percent of the county public health departments said they have the authority to impose quarantines. However, almost 60 percent said they didn't have a plan to enforce a quarantine.

Need for cash, preparedness

The leading factor, according to the county public health directors, is an old one -- lack of money.

"These were the same counties that were having difficulty with the Y2K issue because of the age of their equipment and trying to be updated," said Jackie Byers, the association's research director. "It is a function of funding."

Another cause is inadequate preparation or planning, the association said.

In remarks Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, association President Javier Gonzales painted a bleak picture of the system, maintaining that nearly all of the 3,000 local public health departments are strapped for staff and funds. He estimated that as many as 15,000 more public health workers are needed nationwide.

"There are also infrastructure needs, like computers and communication technology," Gonzales said. "Many health departments in the country today would not be able to handle a major health crisis."

Gonzales alluded to the survey in proposing a six-point plan to raise funding to rebuild the public health system. Gonzales called for $3 billion in antiterrorism grants to cities and counties, while suggesting tax credits for businesses that contribute to homeland security efforts.

According to the organization's estimates, the public health system alone will need $500 million per year over the next five years to cover the cost of staffing, training and equipment.

Offline, out of the loop

The preparedness issue is particularly dicey in smaller counties, where officials often are unfamiliar with the intricacies of filing grant applications. The association said it has encouraged smaller counties to take a regional approach, pooling their resources with neighboring counties' departments.

There are 731 counties with a population of 10,000 or less, according to the National Association of Counties. They account for 24 percent of U.S. counties.

Many of these same counties, officials said, lack adequate equipment to communicate efficiently with state and federal agencies. Nor can some communicate in a timely fashion with their residents.

According to the association, an estimated 35 percent of the counties don't have an e-mail or Internet connection.

Such oversights are potentially deadly, said Stephanie Osborn, associate legislative director for the federal counties association. For example, she noted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Help Alert Network, which provides information to public health departments, relies primarily on e-mails and faxes to reach departments across the country.

"Yet there are, believe it or not, county public health departments in these rural areas that literally do not have the equipment to receive the information," Osborn said. "They're in the dark in terms of any information that is being provided on an emergency basis."

While noting the smaller communities lack high-rise buildings that could be viewed as terrorists' targets, they are just as much at risk for biological and chemical attacks, the association notes.

These same small towns are often the least prepared.

"This is dangerous, especially given the fact that a lot of small-population counties do have a number of very important facilities out there," said Jeff Arnold, the association's legislative director. "Obviously, there are a number of military facilities in small-populated counties.

"The military takes care of its own situation," Arnold said. "Outside of that, the counties simply don't have the capacity."


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