SARS Outbreak:

Improvements to Public Health Capacity Are Needed for Responding to Bioterrorism and Emerging Infectious Diseases

GAO-03-769T: Published: May 7, 2003. Publicly Released: May 7, 2003.

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SARS has infected relatively few people nationwide, but it has raised concerns about preparedness for large-scale infectious disease outbreaks. The initial response to an outbreak occurs in local agencies and hospitals, with support from state and federal agencies, and can involve disease surveillance, epidemiologic investigation, health care delivery, and quarantine management. Officials have learned lessons applicable to preparedness for such outbreaks from experiences with other major public health threats. GAO was asked to examine the preparedness of state and local public health agencies and hospitals for responding to a large-scale infectious disease outbreak and the relationship of federal and state planning for an influenza pandemic to preparedness for emerging infectious diseases. This testimony is based on Bioterrorism: Preparedness Varied across State and Local Jurisdictions, GAO-03-373 (Apr. 7, 2003); findings from a GAO survey on hospital emergency room capacity (in Hospital Emergency Departments: Crowded Conditions Vary among Hospitals and Communities, GAO-03-460 (Mar. 14, 2003)) and on hospital emergency preparedness; and information updating Influenza Pandemic: Plan Needed for Federal and State Response, GAO-01-4 (Oct. 27, 2000).

The efforts of public health agencies and health care organizations to increase their preparedness for major public health threats such as bioterrorism and the worldwide influenza outbreaks known as pandemics have improved the nation's capacity to respond to SARS and other emerging infectious disease outbreaks, but gaps in preparedness remain. Specifically, GAO found that there are gaps in disease surveillance systems and laboratory facilities and that there are workforce shortages. The level of preparedness varied across seven cities GAO visited, with jurisdictions that have had multiple prior experiences with public health emergencies being generally more prepared than others. GAO found that planning for regional coordination was lacking between states. GAO also found that states were developing plans for receiving and distributing medical supplies for emergencies and for mass vaccinations in the event of a public health emergency. GAO found that most hospitals lack the capacity to respond to large-scale infectious disease outbreaks. Most emergency departments have experienced some degree of crowding and therefore in some cases may not be able to handle a large influx of patients during a potential SARS or other infectious disease outbreak. Most hospitals across the country reported participating in basic planning activities for such outbreaks. However, few hospitals have adequate medical equipment, such as the ventilators that are often needed for respiratory infections such as SARS, to handle the large increases in the number of patients that may result. The public health response to outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases such as SARS could be improved by the completion of federal and state influenza pandemic response plans that address problems related to the purchase, distribution, and administration of supplies of vaccines and antiviral drugs during an outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided interim draft guidance to facilitate state plans but has not made the final decisions on plan provisions necessary to mitigate the effects of potential shortages of vaccines and antiviral drugs in the event of an influenza pandemic.

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