A turf fight between the federal departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services (HHS) has seriously hindered preparations against a possible bioterror attack, Newsweek reports. The magazine says one unnamed expert “connected with HHS” says the nation may be less ready than it was just after Sept. 11, 2001, when HHS quickly funneled $1 billion to communities to deal with bioterrorism, because of the confusion caused by the takeover of Secretary Tom Ridge’s Homeland Security Department (DHS).
Now DHS is in charge of deploying HHS’s stockpiles of vaccines and medicines, but it lacks health-care expertise, HHS officials say. The dispute is diverting attention from the real problem: the health-care system is drastically underfunded. Most homeland-security money is going to “emergency responders” who know how to deal with the aftermath of explosions or other disasters, rather than experts who can detect and quarantine an epidemic that may take days to spread. Tara O’Toole of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies at Johns Hopkins declares that “hospitals are not prepared. There is no plan to prepare them and there is no one in charge of making it happen.”
Contrary to reassurances from national-security officials, it is getting easier to deliver toxic substances like anthrax. Beefed-up airport- and building-security checks would not stop someone from walking in with a vial of anthrax, which resembles talcum powder. Ridge denies a turf fight and insists that HHS still has authority over disease outbreaks. He tells Newseek: “We leave bioterrorism to the experts, and that’s [HHS secretary] Tommy Thompson.”