Trenton, NJ 08625-0360
September 15, 1999
Rita Manno or Marilyn Riley
TRENTON -- The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today awarded New Jersey a major grant as part of a national effort to respond to the threat of bioterrorism. The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services is receiving a $1 million, one-year grant, which could be renewed each year for up to five years.
The CDC announced grant awards to a number of state and city public health agencies. The money will be used to strengthen the nation's overall public health system so it can better respond to man-made threats, such as the deliberate release of chemicals or disease-causing organisms, as well as newly emerging infectious diseases, such as antibiotic-resistant organisms or the next influenza pandemic.
"Bioterrorism is a silent, but very real threat. We must prepare, even as we hope to never face the ultimate test," Governor Christie Whitman said. "I congratulate the many people in local health departments, the health care system, and public safety agencies who worked so hard to help us win this grant. Competition for this money was very stiff."
"Local public health plays a critical role in the state's bioterrorism response effort. If a chemical or biological attack occurs, local officials will see the problem first and must respond quickly to help contain it," added Commissioner Christine Grant. "This grant will help strengthen our local public health system. All New Jerseyans will benefit."
The department will use the CDC grant in three areas: expanding surveillance programs to more actively search for diseases and spot disease trends; creating a 24-hour-a-day rapid communication system linking all levels of government, the health care community and emergency response personnel; and expanding laboratory capacity to test for biological agents likely to be used in a terrorist attack.
Much of the grant will be used to create an Internet-based Health Alert Network. The New Jersey Institute of Technology will develop the computer system, which will connect the state health department and 115 local health departments in an around-the-clock system that can
function dependably in an emergency. Local health departments, in turn, will be linked to community health and emergency response agencies through a rapid telefax system that can be used to communicate information and coordinate an emergency response.
Active disease surveillance will be conducted statewide. Particular focus will be in three areas -- Newark, Jersey City and Middlesex County. Federal legislation designated Newark and Jersey City as cities vulnerable to bioterrorist attack, and Middlesex County was chosen as the third site because of its strong public health system, industrial base and central location.
On the state level, the department will conduct training for the many organizations that could play a role in identifying an unusual event, such as a bioterrorist attack. These include local health departments, hospital workers, clinical laboratories doing diagnostic testing, state agencies, medical examiners and the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System.
In the three cities and counties, public health specialists in the local health department will work more intensively with area hospitals, physicians and emergency response workers
For example, the public health specialists will be frequent visitors to area hospitals, and will develop close working relationships with staff dealing with infectious diseases.
"Unfortunately, many of the organisms a terrorist could release sicken people with what appears to be a flu-like illness, at least in the early stages. Most physicians have never seen a case of anthrax or smallpox in their entire careers," explained Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, State Epidemiologist and Assistant Commissioner.
Grant money will be used to train physicians in recognizing diseases caused by acts of bioterrorism, and to train the medical and public health communities in all aspects of bioterrorism detection and response. Some of the training will be conducted through the state's Distance Learning Network, which is being developed with Rutgers University's Cook College. Plans call for designating a learning site in each county that can receive training programs via satellite.
Disease reporting regulations will be updated to include bioterrorism-related conditions. Case-definitions of diseases also must be developed, and protocols established for confirming and reporting diseases and managing electronic data.
"This system will take several years to fully develop. But when it is in place, we will be better prepared and trained to handle both our emergencies and our day-to-day public health problems," explained James S. Blumenstock, Senior Assistant Commissioner, who is serving as project director for this initiative.
Through the expanded surveillance and communication system, public health officials can receive more timely information and determine if an outbreak of food borne illness, or the emergence of an antibiotic-resistant organism in a hospital is a local or more widespread problem. In the case of chemical spills, the system could also be used to transmit information the department keeps on hazardous chemicals in the workplace, or information on how to best treat those exposed to hazardous chemicals.
Now, most disease reporting is done by mail or, in certain cases, by telephone to the local health department, which ultimately reports information to the state. Local health officials conduct follow-up investigations with state assistance, when necessary.
Grant money will also be used to expand and upgrade the State Public Health Laboratory to make possible rapid and accurate diagnostic testing for disease organisms such as those causing anthrax and plague. The state laboratory will also become part of a national network of laboratories that maintain state-of-the-art diagnostic capabilities for the biological agents most likely to be used by terrorists.