Tuesday, November 20, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Laws passed after the 1918 flu epidemic to help Maryland officials respond to health crises are not sufficient to deal with modern terrorist threats, Health Secretary Georges Benjamin said yesterday.
Dr. Benjamin outlined problems the state would face dealing with bioterrorism attacks at the first meeting of the Anti-Terrorism Workgroup, which was appointed to recommend changes in state laws when the legislature meets in January.
While current laws are useful, an attack with deadly bacteria or viruses would require an extraordinarily rapid response that would be difficult under current laws, he said.
The task force was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat; House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, Allegany Democrat; and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George’s County Democrat.
The task force will gather information on terrorism “and put forth ideas to make Maryland a safer place,” said Col. David B. Mitchell, superintendent of Maryland State Police .
Col. Mitchell said the task force is intended to provide a single, coordinated package of legislation that can be introduced with the support of the governor and legislative leaders.
Dr. Benjamin said current laws were intended to give health officials power to respond to natural outbreaks of communicable diseases.
“It doesn’t take into account someone intentionally doing that. We do think these powers need to be modernized,” Dr. Benjamin said.
He said the department has the legal right to isolate people with infectious diseases, but, “in general, we lack the enforcement powers … we think we need.”
In the past, if a patient refused to cooperate with orders to remain in isolation, the department got a court order to place that person in a hospital or other confined setting, Dr. Benjamin said.
“Could we do that for large numbers of people say in a school or a place of employment? Do you have to name every person in that building?” Dr. Benjamin said.
Health officials need changes in the law to allow them to exchange information about patients more quickly while still protecting patient confidentiality, he said.
Dr. Benjamin also cited the need to develop ways to quickly contain outbreaks of communicable diseases such as smallpox and the necessity of having quicker, better communication among health and public safety officials in Maryland and other states and more direct power over hospitals to deal with a major outbreak of smallpox or other communicable disease.
Dr. Benjamin also asked for changes in the law to allow his department to collect more information from biotechnology companies about research that uses potentially dangerous diseases and chemicals.
“Suppose there is a fire. Firefighters would like to know what’s in that building,” he said. “It’s nice that the feds know, but that wouldn’t help us.”

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