- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

RICHMOND Virginia's medical system is ill prepared to handle mass casualties from a biological, chemical or radiation attack by terrorists, officials said yesterday.

"There is a crying need" to educate the public and medical professionals on what to do in the case of such attacks, said James Cole, president and chief executive officer of Arlington Hospital Center. The system "is not prepared to deal with that now."

The Arlington Hospital Center received word at 9:47 a.m. on September 11 that an airliner had crashed into the Pentagon.

Mr. Cole knew the injured would be arriving soon because the center was the closest hospital to the Pentagon. The hospital began receiving patients within 45 minutes.

In all, Arlington Hospital Center treated 44 survivors from the Pentagon, most with smoke inhalation and burns.

While the hospital learned a lot from that experience about freeing up beds and maintaining security, a biological, chemical or radiation attack could be much worse, he told a conference sponsored by the health and medical subcommittee of the state's terrorism preparedness panel.

The medical profession has "paid scant attention" to bioterrorism, said Dr. Dan Hanfling, an emergency room physician for Inova Fairfax Hospital, where two persons were treated for inhalation anthrax last fall.

There is an absence of essential communications links in which hospitals, public health agencies and the broader medical community can share information immediately about patients exposed to biological weapons, Dr. Hanfling said.

"We have a long way to go" he said.

Biological, chemical and radiation weapons so-called "dirty bombs" usually are referred to as weapons of mass destruction. More accurately, they should be called "weapons of mass exposure," Dr. Hanfling said.

"There are going to be a lot of patients who are going to be potentially exposed," he said, noting that such a public health emergency will last for a long time.

Dr. Susan Allan, director of the Arlington Health Department, said detection of biological agents like anthrax is too slow.

"Disease surveillance has made a lot of headway, but there is a lot of work that still needs to be done," she said. "There are insufficient resources everywhere."

Dr. Allan's remarks were echoed by Linda Baker, a registered nurse in Norfolk who serves on a regional disaster planning group. "We need to make [disease detection] quicker, faster, smarter," she said.

A biological attack "is not 30 folks from a bus accident," Miss Baker said. "We need to think much bigger."

Delegate John O'Bannon, Henrico Republican and a physician who heads the health and medical subcommittee, said his group has finished with the planning phase and now is working to "make the system as effective as it ever can be."

The subcommittee's report should be ready by the end of October, Mr. O'Bannon said.

"Of all levels of preparedness, health and medical may well be the most important because it affects the individual," said John H. Hager, the state's anti-terrorism chief. "There's a lot of fear out there. There's a lot of emotion out there."

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