04.28.10

Schumer says Federal Response to NYC Encephalitis Outbreak Shows Troubling Holes in Emergency Preparedness and Coordination for Biological Terrorist Attack

Calls for Federal Audit of U.S. Response in order to improve Biological Terrorist PreparednessSays President should appoint terrorism tsar to coordinate domesticterrorism response; provide new funds to help local governments with first responseto disasters

Calling the New York City encephalitis outbreak a dry run for a biological terrorist assault on a major urban area, US Senator Charles Schumer today called on the General Accounting Office to conduct an audit of the federal response to the West Nilelike encephalitis virus outbreak in order to better prepare for a biological terrorist attack against the United States. Schumer also called on the White House to appoint a national director to coordinate and evaluate domestic response plans, as well as new funds to help localities prepare for a biological or chemical response.

"The FBI believes that a biological attack against the U.S. is not a matter of if, but when. This is the closest example of what a biological terrorist attack on U.S. soil could look like, so we need to step back and learn some lessons from it," said Schumer. "The federal government's response revealed some troubling flaws that need to be corrected."

Richard Falkenrath, terrorism expert and public policy professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, concurred. "The West Nile incident points to the weakest link in current U.S. defenses against biological terrorism. With its scientific confusion, delayed diagnosis, and public anxiety, the West Nile incident provides a partial and relatively benign glimpse of what an act of bioterrorism could look like," Professor Falkenrath wrote in a letter to Schumer.

Schumer said the outbreak of the West Nile encephalitis virus showed what is right about the response system and what is wrong.

"The local response was very strong," said Schumer. "City officials immediately informed the Centers for Disease Control of a potentially suspicious viral outbreak, and CDC doctors got to work immediately on a diagnosis that was ultimately successful in minimizing casualties and eradicating diseasecarrying mosquitos."

Schumer said that while the overall response kept fatalities and the spread of the virus to a minimum, several key mistakes could have led to much greater harm if the naturally occurring virus was instead a biological attack. Schumer said the specific flaws were that:

  • Because federal officials never considered the possibility that the virus was a result of terrorism, CDC compared the strain to only viral strains indigenous to the United States. While in this case the virus was naturally occurring, the assumption nonetheless led to an incorrect diagnosis of the virus.

"A biological attack on the United States will not look like a terrorist assault. It will be done in such a way as to confuse federal officials for as long as possible," said Schumer. "Alarm bells need to go off much earlier in the process. We were fortunate that the treatment and eradication of this virus was the same for both strains."

  • Pertinent information from local expert sources which would have resulted in a much more quick and accurate diagnosis was ignored.

"It is frightening that it took one week for the CDC to respond to a local expert who had pertinent and critical information that could have saved lives," said Schumer. "It's like a suspense movie where there is one person who has the answer and no one will listen until it is almost too late."

Under current procedures for a viral outbreak, local health officials are supposed to notify the federal Centers for Disease Control when a new or unusual strain of a disease makes a sudden appearance. While CDC searches for a diagnosis, they also inform the Office of Emergency Preparedness under the Department of Health and Human Services. It is up to these two offices to make the initial determination of whether the outbreak is naturally occurring or possibly the result of a terrorist incident. When that determination is made the FBI, Department of Defense, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other security agencies are informed.

"This illustrates why there needs to be a national domestic terrorism response tsar. The current system puts no one in charge. Experts in disease control are not necessarily qualified to evaluate a possible terrorism threat. Our current system is an indication that a chemical or biological event in the U.S. is considered a remote threat. In fact, everyone who follows this issue closely believes it is the most likely threat to the U.S. in a postCold War era and we are woefully underprepared," said Schumer.

  • Schumer called for additional funding for the Centers for Disease Control's Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Office to help local governments maximize their ability to respond first to a chemical or biological event. Currently, less than $40 million of the $120 million allocated for CDC bioterrorism programs is used for first response preparedness. Most of the rest is spent on stockpiling vaccines.
  • In addition, Schumer urged the CDC to create an interactive disease network that connects federal disease experts in CDC with health care experts and scientists throughout the United States via the Internet. During the New York encephalitis outbreak, health experts involved in the crisis were unable to read emails from other experts because of incompatible computer systems.

In his letter to the General Accounting Office asking for an audit of the federal response to the New York outbreak, Schumer wrote: "The intention of this audit is not to point fingers of blame but to learn what must be done better in order to ensure that we are prepared to respond to a biological attack on American soil."

"The outbreak of West Nile encephalitis in New York City is a wake up call for the U.S. government. Although the West Nile outbreak was an act of nature, the initial error and delay in identifying the virus show that current U.S. systems for detecting a new disease outbreak would be unable to cope with the even more demanding scenario involving the deliberate release of a highly lethal biological agent by a terrorist group or other enemy of the United States," said Professor Falkenrath.

Schumer said he would ask members of the New York congressional delegation to sign on to his GAO letter.

The text of Senator Schumer's letter follows:

October 15, 1999

The Honorable David M. Walker Comptroller General of the United States U.S. General Accounting Office 441 G. Street NW Washington, D.C. 20548

Dear Mr. Walker:

As I am sure you are aware, New York City recently encountered an outbreak of a rare virus which killed 5 people and caused dozens more to become very sick. The virus turned out to be a form of the West Nile virus, a disease never before seen in the Western Hemisphere.

Although the West Nile encephalitis outbreak was apparently a natural occurrence probably introduced by a mosquito which somehow found its way across the Atlantic the outbreak was in many ways a dry run for a biological terrorist assault on a major American urban center. For that reason, it provides a unique opportunity to assess the federal government's current ability to respond to a potentially catastrophic terrorist attack.

I am writing to request that you review the overall response to the New York City encephalitis outbreak, from the local doctors who first detected the illness, to the federal officials who worked to diagnose the illness and mount a comprehensive response.

I understand that bioterrorism response is a relatively new federal mandate, and that the many Federal agencies working on the issue are, in many ways, just getting started. But it is my concern that the New York City encephalitis outbreak showed potential holes in our nation's preparedness and coordination for a biological terrorist attack. Furthermore, the disease was misdiagnosed for three weeks. In many ways, we were fortunate that the treatment and eradication of the actual virus was the same for the originally diagnosed St. Louis encephalitis virus.

The New York Case provides an opportunity to carefully review federal policies put into place over the past four years to respond to an act of biological terrorism. I am specifically interested in (1) how well information flowed within and between responsible agencies throughout the crisis; (2) how coordinated and effective was the response at all levels of government; and (3) how well the overall response system worked.

The intention of this audit is not to point figures of blame but to learn what must be done better in order to ensure that we are prepared to respond to a biological attack on American soil.

Thank you in advance for you consideration and assistance.

Sincerely,

Charles E. Schumer United States Senator

 

Schumer blamed the rising cost of gas and home heating oil on a series of production cutbacks by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that culminated last March with an agreement to cut supply by 1.7 million barrels per day. At an OPEC meeting last week, OPEC ministers reaffirmed their production quotas thereby ensuring that world oil demand will exceed world supply by 3 million barrels per day. Since March 1, 1999, the price of a barrel of crude oil has more than doubled from about $12.23 to $24.69. As the price of oil increases, the costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher gas and heating oil prices.

In a letter to the President, Schumer urged the Administration to release several hundred thousand barrels a day from America's 571 million barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to stabilize and reduce prices. The United States keeps a large reserve of oil on hand to use in cases of war or economic turmoil.

"This continuation of OPEC's supply quota policy will have a severely detrimental effect on the U.S. economy in the coming months, and I believe requires immediate action. Specifically, I urge you to prepare for the release of a modest amount of oil from America's Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to bring global oil supply and demand into better balance, thereby averting a potential oil price crisis in America and around the world," Schumer wrote on September 21 st.

Today, Schumer renewed his call and announced that he will be requesting a meeting with Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson and Department of Energy Officials to impress upon them the potential threat the rising price of oil poses to New York's economy.

Schumer pointed to a chart using data from FIMAT USA, a firm that tracks and forecasts oil markets for clients on the New York Mercantile Exchange, which showed the estimated cost of gas and home heating oil in New York State at various prices for crude oil. The difference between prices at $25 and $30 per barrel is another twenty cents at the pump as well as for those purchasing home heating oil.

"Six months ago, no one would have believed that oil could possibly reach $25 dollars a barrel this year, yet that is precisely where we are today. Oil shouldn't have to hit thirty dollars a barrel before the federal government steps in to help consumers," said Schumer.

Utica Gas Stations:

Among Schumer's findings, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline jumped in Buffalo and all upstate cities between March 31 st and September 29 th of this year:

 

  • The average retail price of regular unleaded gasoline increased from $1.11 to $1.35. Among a sampling of gas stations surveyed:
  • In the last 6 months, the price of regular unleaded gasoline at the Genesee Street Citgo has gone from $1.08 to $1.35.

"A common theme at all of these gas stations is that the owners are really struggling. When oil prices rise most stations swallow as much of the cost as possible to keep motorists coming in. Their margins are dangerously low right now," said Schumer.

Home Heating Oil:

 

  • Home heating oil prices in Central New York's 13 counties increased from 83 cents to 98.7 cents per gallon.
  • Upstate New York has seen an 8 cent average increase per gallon in the price of home heating oil.
  • 2.6 million New York State households rely on home heating oil to heat their homes.

     

  • 957,000 New York State households receive assistance from the federal government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), more than twice the number of families receiving aid than in any other state.
  • The Department of Energy reported this week that homes using heating oil could see their bills increase by over 40% from last year.

"We are at the very beginning of the buying season for home heating oil and even before the latest round of OPEC talks, analysts in the home heating market were forecasting prices thirty percent above last year's mark. No state is more dependent on home heating oil than New York, and I fear mostly for the elderly on fixed income who may not have the money to prepare for a cold winter," said Schumer.

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