By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor
WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - U.S. states are better prepared than in 2001 for a pandemic or biological attack, but still lack trained staff and specialized facilities, according to a federal report released on Wednesday.
All the state health departments are now ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week to examine urgent health threat reports — compared to just 12 states in 1999, the study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
And there are many more labs that can detect and process chemical and biological agents.
But not a single state can look at a sample from patients and quickly determine if they have been poisoned by various radiological agents — only CDC headquarters can do this, the report found.
And merely assessing preparedness remains a challenge, said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding.
"There is really no gold standard for preparation and there is no preordained list of measures that we can turn to," Gerberding told reporters in a telephone briefing.
"So we have had to invent the airplane as we are flying it."
Before 2001, experts complained that the U.S. public health system had crumbled. The Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax attacks that followed in October 2001 galvanized some effort.
Outbreaks of new diseases have further prodded officials — such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which infected 8,000 people globally and killed 800 before it was stopped in 2003, and of H5N1 avian influenza, which has killed 228 people out of 362 infected.
Nearly $8 billion of federal funds has been allocated for emergency preparedness since 2001.
The CDC report finds that all states now participate in the Health Alert Network, set up to quickly exchange critical public health information.
CATCHING OUTBREAKS SOONER
The CDC’s Dr. Richard Besser said Indiana used this and its new emergency-operations center to respond to a nationwide outbreak of botulism. "They used a real-time system to identify potential cases of botulism sooner and thereby provide appropriate treatment, and potentially saving lives," he said.
In 2006, the Wisconsin state health department used the CDC’s PulseNet system to alert states of an outbreak of E. coli bacteria that killed three people and sickened hundreds before it was traced to California spinach.
"They did something called DNA fingerprinting tests, (and) they entered their results into a system called PulseNet," Besser said. States compared their fingerprints of samples and helped experts track down the source.
But the report found holes, too
"Public health departments report difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified epidemiologists," the report reads.
And a national system for distributing drugs and vaccines is not up to speed. "Getting the right product, the right drug, into the hands of people in the time where it will do some good — this is a major challenge for state and local public health," Besser said.
In December, the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health reported that many states still lack a stockpile of drugs, masks, gloves and other equipment and noted that federal funding for state and local preparedness was declining.
Last October, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported that at least 11 U.S. cities, including Washington, lacked enough hospital beds to handle a surge of patients in a disaster and noted that more money is now spent stockpiling drugs and supplies than in hiring and training health providers to distribute them or to treat victims.
(Editing by Will Dunham and Philip Barbara)