New HHS center stands ready to track bioterror attacks

In less than 60 days, the Department of Health and Human Services has built a state-of-the-art center to handle bioterrorism and public health emergencies.

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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.