Is the U.S. prepared to deal with a biological or chemical attack? Most experts agree that the anthrax attack last year – which left five people dead and 13 others infected – was just a minor bio-terrorism event. Even so, it nearly overwhelmed our public health system.
Mike Wallace talks to Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson to find out what the United States is doing.
This past January, the president signed a bill giving Secretary Thompson more than a billion dollars to overhaul the nation's health system, which would have to respond to a bio-terrorist attack.
"The greatest good that's going to come out of 9/11 is that we are going to be able to build a strong, viable, comprehensive state, local public health system," says Thompson. "And what I'm really the proudest of is that it hadn't been done in the past. It had many problems. And we have dedicated people there. But they just had not received the resources."
Why not? Because, Thompson says, the country felt secure. "We thought we were insulated. We thought that America would not be attacked, and we were not prepared," Thompson says.
But that's a far cry from what Thompson told Wallace last September, just days before the anthrax mailings.
"We're prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops for any kind of bio-terrorism attack," Thompson said then. "I have three kids, and tonight, I'm telling them that they're safe. And my granddaughter, who is less than two years old, is safe as well."
Three days after that interview, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia took the Secretary to task for his comments.
Thompson defended what he had said: "With evidence by what we did on September 11th, I am absolutely assured that we could respond to any contingency and-- and control it."
Of that exchange, Thompson now says: I think what I said probably was not said as appropriately as it should've been. What I meant to say was that we could respond to any contingency. We can respond. But can we respond effectively?"
That's the same thing many Americans have been asking this past year, as they saw people in biohazard suits invading anthrax-infected buildings.
What about detection? In case of release in a subway, for instance, anthrax, what's been done about that?
Says Thompson today: "We are much better at detecting chemical spills or chemical releases, than we are anthrax and the bacteria, viruses. But we haven't come up with a real good detection system yet. But we're investing a lot of research dollars into it."
Since Sept. 11, the government has begun to develop and test sophisticated machines that can detect anthrax and other deadly germs. They are already in place at the Pentagon and are being tested in the Washington D.C., subway system.
What about hospitals? Last September, George Washington University Hospital, just a mile from the White House, was one of the few in the country that was prepared to handle a chemical, and to a lesser extent, a biological attack. Secretary Thompson is now spending almost $200 million to make sure every hospital in America can respond as effectively to an attack as that one.
Those hospitals will eventually be put in direct contact with a state-of-the-art bio-terrorism war room the secretary had built across the hall from his office shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. "We've got direct communication with CDC, with NIH. We also get communications from FBI, and CIA in here," says Thompson. In the center, various experts monitor suspicious outbreaks throughout the country, 24 hours a day.
What would be the response to a small cloud of anthrax right here over Washington?
Says Thompson: "You have to detect it first, and find out. And then we will be able to pull in within hours, within six to 12 hours, 50 tons of medical supplies, antibiotics, things to treat the anthrax." The secretary has a dozen truckloads of supplies in secret locations across the country, fitted with everything from gas masks to respirator machines.
"We have planes that are ready to go. We have up to 7,000 medical personnel that we can activate and direct into any particular community in America," Thompson says.
What should someone in their own home do, to protect themselves and their family? "Nothing. Leave it the way it is. I rely upon the first responders," says Thompson. Training those first responders – the local doctors and nurses – is the heart of Secretary Thompson's national bio-terrorism response plan.
That's not enough, says Republican Senator Bill Frist, a medical doctor himself.
"Anybody that thinks that as a nation we're going to be fully prepared by what we in Washington do is deceiving themselves," says Frist. "And at the end of the day if something happens right now, right where we're sitting, or where our viewers are listening, what would they do? Who would they call? Where would they go? Would they be able to recognize it? What medicines would they take? Very few of those could be answered."
That's why Sen. Frist took it upon himself to write a book for the average American on what to do in case of bio-terrorism. First and most important, he says, each family should set up a "safe room" where they could gather in case of an attack. "You want to have this room as self-contained as you possibly can," he says.
And in it, keep a fan or heater, canned food, bottled water, spare clothes, and a battery-powered radio or television set, and a set of masks: "Masks are important. But when you buy one, you want to look for this N-95 certification." He suggests keeping sticky tape on hand, and sealing up the doors and windows in your safe room if there's news of a chemical or biological release.
But it is not that simple with what most experts agree is the most frightening of the biological weapons – something contagious like smallpox.
Would doctors who couldn't recognize smallpox a year ago be able to recognize it now? "Much more likely," says Thompson. "We are educating the emergency room workers and the general practitioners, and the doctors through a series of e-mails, through a series of pamphlets, through a series of articles that are put out weekly by CDC in Atlanta."
The way to treat smallpox is to be sure to administer the vaccine within two weeks of exposure. Until the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States had only up to 15 million doses of vaccine on hand, with plans to make more by the middle of the decade. But that is all changed.
"We will have in our inventory by the end of this year, a vaccine for smallpox for every man, woman and child in America. And we're developing plans on how we would set up the system to get this vaccine out to individuals, if in case there was a smallpox epidemic," Thompson says.
It is now not possible for most Americans to get vaccinated for smallpox. "First off, there's no question that the first responders, those people that are going to be in the emergency wards, should be the first ones," Thompson told Wallace. "And since you do not fit that category, you're not going to be the first one that's vaccinated."
Why not vaccinate everybody? "There are some consequences," Thompson says. "About two to four individuals out of every million people vaccinated by the smallpox vaccine could die. And approximately another 18 could suffer some consequences - inflammation of the brain. So there are consequences."
"Right now that fundamental question of: should you, do you have the right to get, have access to that vaccine," says Frist. "That has not yet been answered by either the American people or our government."
"I think the federal government, the state government and local government has a huge responsibility to give you the information so that you can best make that decision," Frist says.
Frist thinks there will be a biological attack in the United States with the intent to kill. "We know our intelligence community knows over 12 countries have developed offensive, biological weapons programs. And in this day and time, especially being at war, when we know that people have ill will against us, it only makes sense. It only makes sense that those weapons are likely to be used," he says.
Thompson agrees: "I think there's going to be more. I think, because of the kind of times that we live in, that we have to anticipate that."
Thompson has a tough job. "Some people think it's the toughest job in the federal government," Thompson says. "Three hundred and fifty different programs, and it covers the whole watershed of what human beings need and want in America."
But, Thompson says, the country has made progress: "The truth of the matter is, we are better prepared than we have ever been in America. People don't realize how far we've come. Where we started from and where we are today. Am I satisfied? No. Will I ever be satisfied? I hope not."
The public health and bio-terrorism experts we spoke with seem to agree that, for the first time, the government is finally taking the threat of biological terrorism seriously, and putting the resources needed into protecting us. Are we there yet? No, but we're certainly closer than we were last September.