- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Maryland got a jump-start on preparing to deal with terrorist attacks and can handle isolated cases of bioterrorism, state officials told a legislative committee yesterday.
"The good news in Maryland is, we did not just start yesterday," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, state health secretary. "We began putting this system in place three years ago."
The state has developed plans to deal with all kinds of emergencies, ranging from terrorism to natural disasters. Those plans provide the framework for state, local and federal agencies to coordinate their responses to disasters, Dr. Benjamin said.
The health secretary told members of the House Environmental Matters Committee that the legislature does not need to follow the lead of President Bush and create a new agency to respond to the threat of terrorism.
"Build on existing systems," Dr. Benjamin said. "Don't try to make up something new."
Delegate John Hurson, Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the committee, said he did not hear anything that would lead him to believe any quick legislative action is needed.
"I think what we heard was, we're coming along," he said. "I would not say that we are fully prepared, but we are certainly a lot better off than we were immediately after the events of September 11."
Mr. Hurson said he does not think the legislature will have to put any pressure on state and local officials to do everything they can to prepare Maryland for a bioterrorist attack.
But he said lawmakers may need to pass legislation to help health and emergency officials improve the emergency-response system.
He also expects the legislature will be considering stronger criminal laws dealing with terrorism during the 2002 session that begins in January.
Delegate Daniel Morhaim, Baltimore County Democrat, said anti-terrorism efforts may need to be strengthened in some areas, including keeping a closer watch on laboratories that maintain experimental strains of deadly bacteria, such as anthrax.
He and Mr. Hurson said communication systems need to be improved so local, state and federal public health workers can talk to each other during an emergency.
Mr. Morhaim said the state should concentrate on preventing bioterrorism because the health care system would be quickly overwhelmed by a large-scale terrorist attack using infectious diseases.
"I don't think we'll ever be prepared for the big attack. It's sort of like nuclear war," he said.
Sue Bailey, a former assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and now a partner in a private health care firm, said a large-scale attack in which hundreds of thousands of people would be infected is not impossible, but would be very difficult to carry out.
And while the public is understandably worried about anthrax, she said she does not think it poses a great threat to Marylanders.
"There is almost zero chance that any of us is going to contract anthrax," Miss Bailey told the committee.

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