Local health officials watchful

By Stephen S. Glass

Star Staff

   Local health officials say that they have been on a heightened state of alert since September 11 and will continue to be watchful in the days and months to come as the US faces the possibility of biological and chemical terrorist attacks here at home.
   "So far the only thing we can do is intensify surveillance here in the area," said Shirley Hughes, a representative for the Regional Health Office in Johnson City. "Hopefully that's all we will have to do."
   Hughes says that if biological or chemical agents are used against Americans here at home, the effects could be devastating without prompt response from health professionals. She also said that the use of these weapons would likely not be as noticeable as the explosive attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
   "It's possible that we would not realize anything had happened for hours or longer after the event," Hughes said. "With biological agents like small pox or anthrax or crypto spirillum, you might not notice anything unusual at first. And if anything does happen, it's going to be like fitting together pieces of a puzzle. Hopefully we would be able to put that puzzle together as fast as possible."
   Hughes said that immediately after the attacks on September 11, health officials nationwide were instructed to be watchful for anything out of the ordinary.
   "It's possible that all we would have to go by would be a pattern of symptoms. For instance you might have an unusual amount of people with respiratory problems showing up at a particular emergency room. So that's what we're watching for."
   If the US were to fall victim to biological assault, said Hughes, ordinary emergency rooms anywhere across the country could quickly become the front line in the battle against an outbreak of small pox or other contagious diseases.
   Even though many hospitals may not have enough supplies--such as large quantities of antibiotics--on hand to combat a biological attack on their own, Hughes said that preparations have been in the works since September 11 to tighten the network of local, state, and federal health agencies.
   "We do feel it is important right now to maintain close communication with the state, so that's what we're doing. The state is communicating closely with the federal government. We're one link in the chain of response if something does happen."
   According to National Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who testified recently before a senate committee that the national health office is prepared "to respond to any contingency," a national stockpile of 400 tons of medical supplies--including vaccines and antibiotics--has been amassed at eight strategic locations across the country. Hughes says that those supplies should be available to hospitals anywhere in the US within hours of a biological or chemical strike.
   If such a strike were to take place here in the region, Hughes said, the first response for health or emergency officials would be to notify the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency in Nashville.
   "If something does happen here, TEMA is our lifeline," said Hughes. "TEMA is our link to the federal government."
   Hughes said that members of the Regional Health Office have not only been in close contact with TEMA but with local health departments, emergency management agencies, and hospitals.
   Scott Williams, director of Sycamore Shoals Hospital, said Friday that his staff have also been keeping their eyes open since the attacks and will continue to be watchful.
   "The staff has been alert," said Williams. "The staff here knows what to look for, but we're certainly not panicked by any of this. We're going about business as usual even though we are at a heightened state of caution. "
   Both Hughes and Williams said that they agree with Secretary Thompson's remarks that "people should not be scared into believing they need to buy gas masks."
   Williams said, "Even though we are more alert than we may have been in the past, frankly we are just as concerned with the upcoming flu season here at the hospital as we are with anything else. We know that flu season is coming. "
   "There is no need for the public to panic," said Hughes.
   Hughes said that the best next step in preparation for health agencies is further training.
   "I am certain that education is our best response right now. There has been quite a bit of training going on already, and I am sure that that training will continue."