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Published: Wednesday, 12/10/2008

Ohio rates well in preparation for disasters

BY JONATHAN RISKIND
AND CATHERINE CANDISKY
COLUMBUS DISPATCH

COLUMBUS - Ohio is more ready than most states to deal with a public-health crisis stemming from a bioterrorism attack, disease outbreak, or natural disaster, a report released yesterday finds.

But in the years since 9/11, states' preparation for such crises has been affected by a national mood of complacency. And although Ohio gets a good grade overall, the state's public-health lab was not ready last year to handle the demands of a flu pandemic, according to the report released by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Ohio is one of 10 states to get a score of eight out of a possible 10 points on a scorecard of public-health preparedness indicators.

Five states - Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin - scored perfect 10s. Seven states were at nine. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia were at seven points or less.

Like every other state and the District of Columbia, Ohio gets credit for having adequate plans to distribute emergency vaccines, antidotes, and other medical supplies from the nation's stockpile.

Ohio also is one of 26 states that has a public-health lab with an intrastate courier system that operates 24 hours a day for specimen pickup and delivery. It also is one of 24 states and the District of Columbia with laws that reduce or limit the liability for businesses and nonprofit groups that serve in a public-health emergency, the report found.

But Ohio does not have similar liability-protection laws for individual volunteers who serve in a public-health emergency, though 42 states and the District of Columbia do.

And, the report found, Ohio is one of only three states where the public-health lab cannot meet the expectations of the state's pandemic flu plan.

State officials commended the analysis but said they think Ohio met all 10 criteria.

Contrary to the report, the state does have sufficient supplies to test for pandemic flu, said Bret Atkins, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health.

"We don't keep a bigger supply on hand because once we have established the pandemic has arrived in an area, we will tell doctors that they do not need to keep sending samples from that area. We don't need to keep testing and testing," Mr. Atkins said.

On the liability issue, Mr. Atkins said, Ohio law provides protection to 12,500 volunteers registered in the state's community service corps database. The state also has a Good Samaritan law that shields an individual who might try to help a victim of a car crash or other incident, he noted.

The report found that Ohio is one of 39 states that increased or maintained its level of public-health funding from 2006-07 to 2007-08.

The report notes concern about the level of public-health funding in states during the economic recession. Since 2005, there has been a 25 percent cut to federal and state funding overall for emergency preparedness, the report said. Nearly three dozen states, including Ohio, are facing 2009 budget shortfalls.

"The economic crisis could result in a serious rollback of the progress we've made since Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina to better prepare the nation for emergencies," said Jeff Levi, director of the Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-health advocacy organization.

"The cuts to state budgets in the next few years could lead to a disaster for the nation's disaster preparedness."



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