On April 22, The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications held a hearing regarding the threat of bioterrorism and the steps that need to be taken to prepare for and mitigate it. With recognition that bioterrorism is an urgent, continuing threat in an increasingly interconnected world, there is concern that recommendations made over the last decade have not been implemented. Three witnesses appeared before the Subcommittee to speak to their experiences and provide recommendations: Jim Talent, former Missouri Senator and former Vice Chair of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism; Dr. Charles B. Cairns, Interim Dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine Health Sciences Center; and Marisa Raphael, Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Office of Emergency Planning and Response.
The witnesses made numerous recommendations to better position the federal government, as well as local communities, to effectively prepare for and respond to a biological attack. One lesson learned from the Ebola response is that centralized leadership and consistent messaging from the federal level are of critical importance. There is a need for local, state, and federal officials to more easily share and integrate sensitive data, such as the data from BioWatch and local clinical facilities. There is also a need for sustained consistent funding to build and maintain medical countermeasure dispensing programs. Marisa Raphael credits New York City’s successful Ebola response and well-prepared dispensing program to 10 years of preparation supported by direct funding through the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) Program, Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP), and Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). New York City is one of only four directly funded cities through PHEP, and they have received a 35% cut in funding since 2005. Panelists discussed additional ways that the federal government could better support bioterrorism preparedness at the local level, which include: supporting the expedited development of additional medical countermeasures (taking the elderly, children, and pregnant women into account); including local representatives in the development of guidance so that it is informed by realities on the ground; increasing the speed with which SNS resources can be deployed; and assigning non-mission critical federal staff to support dispensing activities.