Public Health Preparedness:

Response Capacity Improving, but Much Remains to Be Accomplished

GAO-04-458T: Published: Feb 12, 2004. Publicly Released: Feb 12, 2004.

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The anthrax incidents in the fall of 2001 and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-2003 have raised concerns about the nation's ability to respond to a major public health threat, whether naturally occurring or the result of bioterrorism. The anthrax incidents strained the public health system, including laboratory and workforce capacities, at the state and local levels. The SARS outbreak highlighted the challenges of responding to new and emerging infectious disease. The current influenza season has heightened concerns about the nation's ability to handle a pandemic. GAO was asked to examine improvements in state and local preparedness for responding to major public health threats and federal and state efforts to prepare for an influenza pandemic. This testimony is based on GAO's recent report, HHS Bioterrorism Preparedness Programs: States Reported Progress but Fell Short of Program Goals for 2002, GAO-04- 360R (Feb. 10, 2004). This testimony also updates information contained in GAO's report on federal and state planning for an influenza pandemic, Influenza Pandemic: Plan Needed for Federal and State Response, GAO- 01-4 (Oct. 27, 2000).

Although states have further developed many important aspects of public health preparedness, since April 2003, no state is fully prepared to respond to a major public health threat. States have improved their disease surveillance systems, laboratory capacity, communication capacity, and workforce needed to respond to public health threats, but gaps in each remain. Moreover, regional planning between states is lacking, and many states lack surge capacity--the capacity to evaluate, diagnose, and treat the large numbers of patients that would present during a public health emergency. Although states are developing plans for receiving and distributing medical supplies and material for mass vaccinations from the Strategic National Stockpile in the event of a public health emergency, most of these plans are not yet finalized. HHS has not published the federal influenza pandemic plan, and most of the state plans have not been finalized. In 2000, GAO recommended that HHS complete the national plan for responding to an influenza pandemic, but according to HHS, the plan is still under review. Absent a federal plan, key questions about the federal role in the purchase, distribution, and administration of vaccines and antiviral drugs during a pandemic remain unanswered. HHS reports that most states continue to develop their state plans despite the lack of a federal plan.

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