Oklahoma House Committee Addresses Health Emergency Bill

Article excerpt

With its experience after the bombing and natural disasters such as tornadoes, Oklahoma is better prepared to address acts of bioterrorism than some states, lawmakers were told Monday.

So says Michael Crutcher, state epidemiologist.

Crutcher and Leslie Beitsch, state health commissioner, were addressing a joint House caucus discussing House Bill 2765, by Rep. Bill Paulk, D-OKC, the "Catastrophic Emergency Health Powers Act," taken from model legislation written by officials with the Centers for Disease Control.

The bill requires the governor to appoint a Public Health Emergency Planning Commission to develop a plan for responding to public health emergencies. It would also expand both the duties and authority of state agencies to address such outbreaks, including the power to quarantine certain individuals who may have been exposed to harmful agents.

The Paulk bill carries an overall price tag of $80 million.

Crutcher said that another factor in Oklahoma's favor in addressing bioterrorism is its centralized public health system, which aids coordination efforts.

Answering a question from Rep. Leonard Sullivan, R-OKC, Crutcher said that he would give Oklahoma a rating of "6 or 7" on a scale of 10 for its emergency preparedness in this area.

Crutcher said that bioterrorist acts could be launched against agricultural products or livestock as well as people, with particularly devastating impact in a state such as Oklahoma.

They can take the form of chemical agents, with which American public health officials have more experience, or infectious biological agents, such as the recent anthrax scare.

"This is a whole new ballgame," said Crutcher.

Because they are infectious rather than chemical, he told a joint House caucus, the former can take longer to uncover as well as longer to kill or make people sick.

"There is the potential for many casualties," Crutcher added.

Then there are the hoaxes, he said.

"This is the new 'bomb threat,'" Crutcher said.

Since Sept. 11, he said, the possible threat from bioterrorism has grown to the point that an organized response is necessary.

"This truly crosses all jurisdictions," Crutcher said.

From law enforcement to health agencies, he said, there is a need for a sensitive surveillance system, ways to treat possibly thousands of very ill people, a system for supplying vaccines and antibiotics, isolation and quarantine where necessary, and how to handle remains.

"These are very critical issues we have to deal with," Crutcher said.

There are also legal issues to be addressed, he pointed out, particularly when it comes to controlling people's movements or quarantining otherwise well individuals who may have been exposed to a biological agent. …

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