County bioterror team formed

By Sharon Salyer

Herald Writer

The Snohomish Health District announced Tuesday it is creating a new four-member bioterrorism team in response to the recent anthrax outbreaks and the possibility of future bioterrorist threats.

It will serve as a kind of early warning system for illnesses caused by bioterrorism and assist with other more common disease outbreaks.

The team will regularly survey 800 area doctors and emergency rooms at the four hospitals in Snohomish County looking for suspicious illnesses and help coordinate the public health response when problems are found.

Jack Blackwell, a Lake Stevens council member, Army veteran and longtime Army reservist, urged fellow Snohomish Health District board members to both create the bioterrorism team and reconsider whether it needs to be expanded in March.

His proposal was unanimously adopted by the board, made up of city council members from throughout the county and all five Snohomish County Council members.

"I was in a panic before Sept. 11," Blackwell said, later explaining he had previously attended bioterrorism conferences. "Every time I look at the (danger of) the smallpox situation, I almost pass out.

"I think it’s highly negligent " not to create the team, he added.

Dr. M. Ward Hinds, who heads the countywide public health agency, said the recent anthrax attacks "point out we are vulnerable" and that it has taken a "huge response" to deal with the 22 cases so far identified on the East Coast.

"That’s a relatively small actual outbreak when thousands of cases could occur under the right conditions," he added.

Several board members said they were concerned about how to pay for the program beyond its first year. The annual costs of the four-member team are estimated at $238,137. If it is expanded to a seven-member team, costs could more than double to $536,237 a year.

"It scares me to take (nearly) $240,000 out of a contingency fund, but I think we need to do it," said Jamie Gravelle, a Mountlake Terrace council member.

During the first year, Hinds said, money will be drained from a reserve fund, essentially the same as "spending your savings account."

Hinds said he hopes promised federal money to beef up public health response to bioterrorism will be approved by Congress, and that the state may provide some money, too.

Rick Mockler, deputy administrator, said that public health officials in Island, San Juan, Whatcom and Skagit counties will be asked if they want to help chip in for team costs, which would then be on-call to assist these agencies in case of a bioterrorism attack.

The four-member bioterrorism team will be made up of a manager, an epidemiologist or specialist in disease outbreaks, a registered nurse and an office assistant.

"We’ll be very lucky to have everybody on board by March," Hinds said, when the health district board is scheduled to reconsider whether more people need to be added to the team.

You can call Herald Writer Sharon Salyer at 425-339-3486 or send e-mail to

salyer@heraldnet.com.

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