Massachusetts not ready for bioterror attack

Published 25 March 2008

State auditor criticizes state’s preparedness for a bioterror attack; the state acquired ten medical trailers to treat victims, but one of them is missing

The Massachusetts state Department of Public Health’s preparations for a bioterrorism attack were faulted by the state auditor yesterday, who found that the department’s administrators did not have sufficient plans in place and had even lost track of one of ten medical trailers it purchased to treat victims. “Without proper oversight, the Department of Public Health cannot provide assurance that the Commonwealth would respond effectively to a bioterrorism emergency,” said the report by state auditor Joseph DeNucci. DeNucci questioned the usefulness of the state’s ten mass-casualty incident trailers. The trailers, designed to provide emergency medical services, are supposed to be stationed in five regions across the state. “Without proper oversight, the Department of Public Health cannot provide assurance that the Commonwealth would respond effectively to a bioterrorism emergency,” DeNucci said in a statement. The missing trailer was not at the primary or secondary location listed in planning documents, and, once it was found, the keys were not readily available, the auditors found. The Department of Public Health responded yesterday that the incident involving the missing trailer took place three years ago. It said organizational shortcomings identified in the report have since been fixed.

The’s David Abel writes that the audit examined about $28 million in homeland security grants awarded to Massachusetts by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from July 2004 to December 2005. The Department of Public Health had developed a plan with contractors to upgrade and deploy emergency medical service units in response to a terrorist attack or outbreak of an infectious disease, but auditors found problems with the plans. They said some municipalities had not been notified of the trailers’ availability, location, or purpose; maintenance of the trailers and equipment did not ensure they were in a state of readiness; the trailers were not stored where they were supposed to be; there were no routine drills using the trailers; and the department failed to outline procedures of how and when to use the trailers.

Donna Rheaume, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, blamed the poor audit results on the administration of Republican Mitt Romney, who was governor at the time of the audit review. “Since the new DPH leadership team took office just about a year ago, substantial changes have been made to the organizational structure of our Emergency Preparedness Bureau,” Rheaume said in a statement. Since Governor Deval Patrick’s administration took over, she said, the department has hired its first full-time director of emergency preparedness and consolidated operations to ensure “greater operational efficiency and a higher degree of accountability. We take the findings of the auditor’s report seriously and will continue working to improve all aspects of our emergency preparedness program and initiatives,” Rheaume said.

In addition to the first trailer, the contents of a second trailer had not been unpacked and sorted, nor had any of its equipment been tested, auditors said. They found the medical supplies and equipment susceptible to weather.