Los Angeles County has spent at least $2 million in federal grant money intended to prepare for bioterrorism on improving the health department’s image, responding to unrelated health problems, and buying questionable supplies and services, the Los Angeles Times reports. When officials couldn’t round up enough volunteers to take part in a smallpox vaccination drill, they turned to actors from an old Hollywood standby: Central Casting. “Unless we have a compelling public message, this seems to be a big waste of taxpayer funds,” John Wallace, the department’s director of external and government relations, wrote department leaders about a proposed $1-million contract for a media campaign.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, county public health director, defended the spending, saying the department is much better prepared to handle a disaster. It has conducted more than 130 drills to test the county’s readiness and created a surveillance system – working with hospitals, schools, laboratories and the coroner – to track disease outbreaks. Among expenditures with federal funds were $128,000 for tchotchkes to be given away to the public, including letter openers, whistles, magnets, mouse pads, flashlights, pens, travel toothbrushes, and emergency kits. $4,675 was spent on a teleprompter so Fielding and others can “face the camera and be able to read a prepared speech.”