If anthrax — or smallpox, or a newly engineered disease — were to break out tomorrow, would hospitals and public health departments be prepared? The Washington Post says it is hard to tell “because no federal agency has published the results of a full investigation into what went right and what went wrong” after the 2001 anthrax incidents. After extensive discussions with those involved, scientists from Johns Hopkins University and the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security found that the work of doctors dealing with anthrax patients was significantly hampered by the poor distribution of information.
A Post editorial cites personnel problems. A new report from the Partnership for Public Service, points out that federal biodefense agencies may lose qualified staff in the next few months. Starting salaries for public health workers are far lower than those in the private sector, and academia offers scientists more stable careers. Others, both inside and outside government, point to a shortage of medical personnel as well: The nation’s hospitals are already overstretched, and they have very little “surge capacity.”
The administration and its critics generally agree that the nation is better prepared than it was, but that if an attack took place tomorrow, many people still might die. Worse, substantial resistance remains at many levels to the very idea of preparing for a bioterrorist attack.