Security through spending

What price preparedness?

For a few days last October, the Buncombe County Health Center was posting daily media advisories on its Web site about the anthrax threat. The national preoccupation had taken a particularly local spin because Floridian Robert Stevens, who’d visited North Carolina (including the mountain region), later became one of the country’s handful of anthrax casualties. Nationwide, five people died and 18 others were infected, according to Gannett News Service.

In mid-November, Gov. Mike Easley decided to set up regional teams to prepare for dealing with future bioterrorism threats. By April, the Public Health Regional Surveillance Team (one of seven statewide) was up and running in the Buncombe County Health Center, reports Team Leader Dr. Martha Salyers.

“It came about as a concept because of the entire anthrax episode,” says Salyers. “But it really came home to North Carolina because [Roberts] was visiting here.”

Although the public-health team was envisioned as focusing on bioterrorism, the group has already assumed a broader role, notes Salyers, since dealing with a bioterrorist incident has many similarities with investigating and handling a big flu epidemic or an outbreak of salmonella or other food-borne illness. The main difference, notes Buncombe County Health Center Director George Bond, is simply that that bioterrorism is intentional and the other scenarios are not.

“It’s much more likely that we’ll have one of those than a bioterrorist episode,” Salyers observes.

At the same time, says Salyers, the anthrax case spotlighted the very real possibility of a bioterrorism incident. The team’s primary role, then, is to help 20 WNC counties with their state-mandated bioterrorism-response plans and serve as educators, investigators and consultants in the event of an actual bioterrorism crisis or other public-health emergency, notes Salyers. In addition, the team works closely with the Regional Response Team, which handles chemical spills.

“One way you can look at this is that it brings more dollars into public health, [which] has been underfunded for decades,” Salyers points out.

The team’s federally funded budget for fiscal year 2002-03 is $370,000. That pays for salaries, supplies, training, travel and other costs, she says. Besides Salyers, the team includes an industrial hygienist, a nurse/disease-investigation specialist and a program assistant. The team is now funded for 18 months, though Bond says he’s been assured the funding will be permanent.

That budget, however, doesn’t include the cost of setting up a state regional laboratory at the Health Center — another outcome of the anthrax episode. Last fall, the state lab in Raleigh was deluged with specimen samples for anthrax. As a result, the state is setting up three regional labs, she reports.

A lab specialist began working in Buncombe County last week, and the lab itself will be assembled within the next two or three months, says Salyers. Until the lab is built, the lab assistant (a state employee) will undergo training and work with local hospitals as well as the 20 counties in the surveillance team’s coverage area. The total budget for the regional lab this year (including construction, salary, equipment costs and other expenses) is about $270,000, says Lou Turner, director of the State Laboratory of Public Health. Like the surveillance team, the regional lab will be a resource in case of bioterrorism incidents and other public-health emergencies, Turner says.

Both the surveillance team and the regional laboratory are being funded by a portion of the $23 million in anti-bioterrorism money the federal Centers for Disease Control allocated to North Carolina, notes Bond.

Making homeland security pay

The state budget crunch may have put the pinch on county spending, but there seems to be a stream of federal money flowing into Buncombe County for anti-terrorism efforts.

Although the commissioners have reduced or eliminated the county’s customary allocation for school resource officers, the Arts Council and economic development (among other programs), the county’s new homeland security director, Jerry VeHaun, has been empowered to hunt up money for fighting terrorism.

“One of the things that I’m doing … is making sure that none of these pots of money get by us, and we’re able to take advantage of every dollar,” notes VeHaun, whose primary role is directing Buncombe County Emergency Services.

And depending on what Congress authorizes for the federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, there could be a lot out there (as in “billions”).

Thus far, the funding stream has been a relative trickle. In the past four months, the county has gotten word that it’s received three federal grants totaling $83,000. The money has been funneled through the state to spend on anti-terrorism training exercises, equipment and planning, VeHaun reports.

Federal anti-terrorism money will also pay for the county to establish an urban search-and-rescue team through the Emergency Services Department. The regional team — one of six statewide — will consist of 48 people (mostly firefighters and EMS workers) who’ll be trained in rescuing people from collapsed buildings. In addition to the federally funded training, the team will get about $100,000 worth of equipment, says VeHaun.

Besides his fiscal duties, VeHaun has also been assigned to organize a local Citizen Corps group (a project promoted by President Bush); these volunteers will be trained to assist emergency personnel. VeHaun is also working on setting up Community Emergency Response Teams — volunteers who’ll be trained to serve as auxiliary responders in a disaster.

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