New HHS center stands ready to track bioterror attacks

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has wasted no time in constructing a state-of-the-art command center to handle any bioterrorism or public health emergency that might arise. In less than 60 days' time, Thompson finished the job, with the ribbon-cutting on the $3.5 million center occurring in December.

The center is just across the hall from Thompson's office in the main HHS building at the foot of Capitol Hill, and it won't require plastic sheeting and duct tape to keep out germs and chemicals. The center has a self-contained ventilation system that allows government officials to take refuge there for an extended period of time, even if the rest of the building is crawling with anthrax or another harmful chemical or biological agent.

The center's purpose is to provide timely, accurate information and intelligence to the secretary so that he can make quick, well-informed decisions about a public health situation anywhere in the country. Special equipment can map and display the progression of illness outbreaks.

Tracking is key, Thompson said in an interview just after the center opened. If, for example, a chemical agent were released in a Minnesota town, officials at the command center could plug in the location and the weather forecast and then predict direction and travel time for the toxic plume. HHS could then advise people in Minnesota about which areas to evacuate and which hospitals to avoid.

The technology can also track non-terrorism events. It has already been used in tests to monitor the West Nile virus, the recent pharmaceutical plant fire in North Carolina, and the December typhoon in Guam. In the West Nile case, HHS was able to show, county by county, how and when the disease was spreading and how many people were dying.

The mapping also aids the monitoring of food poisoning cases, Thompson said. "We can have FDA saying we have this food poisoning in Milwaukee, and we have a map we can put up on that screen showing the quadrants in the city, and see how it's spreading." He added, "We can have the hospitals there. We can have NIH, some of their experts here, and we can develop a plan right from here with CDC, FDA, and NIH all working together with one map telling us how to do it."

It's also important for Thompson to be able to quickly locate his resources, including personnel. The command center keeps tabs on the 50 tons of medical supplies stashed in secret places throughout the country, and on 8,000 medical responders who are ready to sprint to the site of an emergency.

The technology allows HHS to know the exact locations of its secret pharmaceutical stockpiles and medical supplies, which are split among 12 sites. "We can move 50 tons of supplies into any city in America, Alaska, and Hawaii within seven hours," Thompson said. In December, for example, Thompson sent a response team to Guam to handle the medical emergency from the typhoon. Other responders were put on alert. "If we have a crisis, we want to make damn sure we can call them up and they know what they're going to do-so we're putting more training in ... putting them on alert," he said.

The command center combines various forms of communication-including ground-based and satellite systems-to ensure that if one fails, a backup is available. The computers, radios, and telephones in the network can also talk to one another. The idea is to be able to share information with state and local entities and with HHS's own relevant, but geographically dispersed, agencies, including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; and the Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, Md. In addition, the center has lines to other federal partners, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, and the CIA.

The center houses 26 workstations for Thompson and other top HHS officials, including the surgeon general. It also has desks for representatives from the FBI, the CIA, and the Homeland Security Department. HHS says the center fills the gaps in communication that federal, state, and local agencies encountered during the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Video conferencing for up to 10 participants is also possible. If a biological or chemical event occurs in Boston, for example, officials at the command center can watch the local news reports and use the video-conferencing tools to hook up the Massachusetts governor, the Boston police chief, the Homeland Security Department, and various federal agencies (the CDC, NIH, FDA, FBI, and CIA) and give the participants real-time, interactive communication. "We've got 10 screens here. We can interact," said Thompson.

Nine 60-inch-wide plasma TV screens allow HHS officials to monitor developing public health emergencies through 4,000 channels across North America. HHS can also view local television stations from up to 10 cities to monitor breaking events in different regions.

Normally, the command center is staffed with a few public health officials, whom Thompson refers to as his army. They keep an eye on trends and resources. Now, with the heightened terrorist alerts, at least half a dozen HHS workers are staffing the center. Thompson pops in at least once a day to get updates and to make sure that his baby is running smoothly.

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