GW medical professor and biohazard expert Dr. Craig D’Atley and other panelists said the nation is far from ready to respond to a biomedical terrorist attack during a “Nightline” town meeting Friday.
With more than 250 people in attendance, including fire, emergency medical and military personnel, “Nightline” broadcast live from the Red Cross headquarters on 17th and E streets.
“Nightline” host Ted Koppel referred to a “60 Minutes” interview with the Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson at the beginning of the show. Koppel questioned Thompsons’ statements of U.S. preparedness for a bioterrorist attack.
“If you’d like to go on believing the United States is prepared for any bio-threat, you might want to go see what Jay Leno and David Letterman are doing tonight,” Koppel said with sarcasm.
All of the panelists cited problems with the nation’s readiness.
“Our nation’s capital is not where we want to be,” D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams said when asked if he felt D.C. could handle a biological weapons attack.
Bioterrorism specialist Jerry Hauer said preparedness is not finite and reassurances made by the government serve to merely calm the waters.
“Sensitivity has never been higher in this nation. We need several things (in order to recognize an attack),” D’Atley said. “We need the ability to tie into a medical surveillance program in order to look at data from several different hospitals,”
The show centered on a fictional scenario created by ABC to show what would happen in the event of a biological attack.
The scenario spanned a week and depicted a subway attack using Anthrax.
The Anthrax was undetectable and by the time authorities realized the situation, and medicine could not help the 40,000 victims of the attack.
Questions from the audience primarily addressed what citizens and authorities on the local level should do to prepare for an attack.
Hauer responded to a woman’s question involving the potential need to purchase gas masks and antibiotics.
“No, (the government doesn’t) think people need a gas mask,” Hauer said. “For a biological attack it would be a clandestine release of the agent. A gas mask would be useless because you wouldn’t know the attack happened.”
Hauer said antibiotics are not something families should have, because there is a risk of abuse. If someone uses antibiotics in fear of an attack, they will lessen the effectiveness of the drugs.
Another issue raised by Koppel was the recent closing of D.C. General Hospital after the hospital’s funding was cut. He asked Williams what he thought of the area having fewer treatment facilities.
Williams said he is considering the option of having D.C. General as a backup facility that would open in the event of an attack.
D.C. General and GW Hospital were the only two hospitals in the district with decontamination units. With a closed D.C. General, GW Hospital has the only remaining unit in operation.