Public Health Officials Prep for Bioterror With New Hires

By: - September 6, 2002 12:00 am

Unemployment is up across the country. Some companies receive up to 400 resumes for each open position. But if you can fight, detect or help plan a response to a bioterrorism attack, you can find work in almost any state.

Maryland is looking for microbiologists, lab technicians and a public health preparedness director. Washington State has 12 bioterrorism-related openings for emergency planners, public health advisors, microbiologists and financial analysts. Two Texas counties are currently advertising for an assistant director and medical director of bioterrorism, a biostatistician, a surveillance coordinator, public information officer and an emergency planner.

States are desperately trying to find a slew of workers, after last fall’s anthrax attacks brought the issue of public health front and center for the first time in decades.

Known primarily for overseeing safe drinking water, vaccinations and disease prevention programs for things like HIV/AIDS, public health has emerged to play a critical role in the nation’s homeland security plan, to ensure states can respond to anthrax, or a yet-to-be-seen chemical or biological attack. But many state officials say there’s a shortage of skilled workers, so they’re hiring who they can and retraining existing staff to get them up to speed.

President Bush signed into law last January a measure that will send $1.1 billion to the states, territories and three major cities (Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City) to strengthen the public health system.

In order to get the money, states submitted bioterror preparedness plans to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and are required, among other things, to:

  • appoint a senior public health official within the state health department,
  • provide for at least one epidemiologist (a disease detector, essentially) for each metropolitan area with a population greater than 500,000, and
  • develop a communications system that provides a 24/7 flow of health information among hospital, state and local health officials and law enforcement.

How will states meet the new bioterrorism goals? Hiring more workers is a priority, said Maryland physician Georges Benjamin, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO).

“We’re trying to invest to get an adequate workforce. The good news is states have the money to do it, but the bad news is there’s not a lot of people with those qualifications,” said Benjamin, who also serves as Secretary of Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Benjamin said his staff has been working hard to make sure there are up-to-date computers, that everyone is hooked up to e-mail and key personnel have beepers. Officials are also getting laboratories up to speed for prompt testing of potential disease-carrying agents and running emergency response practice drills on college campuses and around the conference room table. All that work takes extra bodies, and Benjamin said there may not be enough qualified people to fill the jobs.

“The number of people we have to train may be grossly understated. We’re hiring in all areasepidemiology, laboratories, public relations and information technologyand we’re hopeful with two (local) public health schools” that we’ll find the staff we need, he said.

Washington State’s Mary Selecky, who serves as Secretary of Health, agrees it won’t be possible to hire some highly-skilled staff all at once.

“You don’t create epidemiologists over night,” she said.

But officials aim to hire at least 100 people statewide to help out at the state’s unique regional command centers, and may beef up staff initially by conducting in-house training. Among other projects, the state will soon be pilot testing a secure computer system for workers to report diseases. “The new positions are not about numbers, but having the skills and capacity we need (to respond in an emergency). You can increase people’s knowledge overtime through training and practice,” Selecky said.

Texas epidemiologist Dennis Perrotta, whose current position is a post-9/11 creation, said the Lone Star State will add 50 more public health workers at the state level alone. New hires will help out at four new public health laboratories, work in public information departments and fill roles as regional bioterrorism prevention planners.

Perrotta said officials are not concerned about filling state-level jobs. But he said there is a need to find workers truly interested in protecting the public’s health. Many epidemiologists go into academia or industry-related jobs, but “I hope that’s changing,” he said.

Whatever gimmicks or carrots states may use to attract employees, the key to long-term protection lies in supporting what’s been in place for years, said Washington State’s Selecky, who has worked in public health for 25 years.

“We have had numerous communicable diseases many times before we had anthrax last fall, and we’re using the same systems. But there needs to be a sustained, long-term investment, so … if headlines seem to reduce, we don’t drop our attention,” she said.

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