- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2014

The Department of Homeland Security is unprepared to protect its own workforce should a major infectious disease hit U.S. shores, a new watchdog report is warning, raising concerns the agency may not even be able to protect its own employees in the event of a deadly flu or other pandemic disease attack.

The report found that DHS officials had done an inadequate job of tracking anti-pandemic drugs and equipment acquired for critical agencies such as the U.S. Secret Service and Customs and Border Protection.

DHS may not be able to provide sufficient pandemic preparedness supplies to its employees to continue operations during a pandemic,” said the agency’s watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, in a report dated Aug. 26 and made public Monday.

“Without sufficiently determining its needs, the department has no assurance it will have an adequate amount of antiviral [drugs] to maintain critical operations during a pandemic,” the report continued, warning of the effects for offices such as the Secret Service, CPB and the Transportation Security Administration.

Despite being tasked with protecting the U.S. from dangerous threats, DHS “did not keep accurate records of what it purchased and received,” investigators said.

One of the biggest problems, investigators said, is that most of the stockpiles are of antiviral drugs that are expiring. By the end of 2015, the IG said that 81 percent of Homeland Security’s stockpiled antiviral medication will be past its shelf life.

In addition, 84 percent of the agency’s stock of hand sanitizer has already expired, some batches by as long as four years, inspectors said.

Homeland Security officials disagreed with much of the report, saying it was a “misrepresentation” of the agency’s preparedness for an outbreak.

When it comes to the expiration dates, “the OIG’s conclusion seems to be reached by relying on the manufacturers’ information rather than the judgment of published, peer-reviewed research,” a response from DHS said.

The department has a program in place to routinely replace outdated stocks of medication, officials said, and has worked with its partners at the Health and Human Services Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare a response to diseases.

Officials said they believed the IG’s estimate was incorrect: only 15 percent of the antiviral medication will expire next year, an amount the agency has already budgeted to replace.

“Combined with coverage for the entire DHS workforce, critical contractors, and those in the department’s care and custody, it is unclear what the OIG considers sufficient,” DHS said in their response.

Officials agreed with “the intent” of the IG’s recommendations to stay on top of pandemic response planning, but disagreed that the agency isn’t up to the task.

With many concerned about the recent outbreak of Ebola, and reports of a mysterious respiratory infection affecting children in the Midwest, the report comes at a time when increasing attention is being focused on global health risks, and how easily a disease could spread in an interconnected world.

The current outbreak of Ebola in Africa has killed an estimated 2,000 people, and led to CDC leader Dr. Tom Frieden giving dire warnings that the infection could spiral out of control and affect the entire continent if action isn’t taken soon.

So far, three Americans have been infected with the virus. Two have been successfully treated and are expected to survive and a third is undergoing treatment now.

The IG’s report did not specify what pandemics could befall the U.S., but said that Homeland Security officials don’t know whether they have the right quantities of surgical masks, gloves, protective suits and other items collectively called “personal protective equipment,” or PPE.

DHS and its components do not know where its personal protective equipment is located, how much it has, and the usability of the stockpiles that exist,” the IG said.

The Washington, D.C., area has stockpiled 350,000 coverall suits — colloquially called “hazmat suits” — but has no documentation on whether that is the correct amount, the IG said.

The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, also has stockpiled 200,000 respirators that are now beyond the manufacturer’s guaranteed usability, investigators said.

But DHS officials warned it’s a mistake to view PPE as the primary means of protecting people, arguing it is a misconception based on the fact that they are tangible items easily counted and familiar to the general public.

“Using PPE stock levels as an indicator of preparedness is based on a misconception that during a pandemic, the entire workforce should wear PPE,” DHS said, arguing that for actual medical planning, a better course of action is to try to keep the outbreak contained and keep certain employees away from infected areas or persons.

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