State's strengths, weaknesses seen in health study

WASHINGTON - Washington ranks among the dozen or so best-prepared states for a bioterrorism attack, an outbreak of pandemic flu or other public health emergency, a report released Tuesday found.

In eight of the 10 categories scrutinized in the study prepared by the Trust for America's Health, Washington state received a passing score. It failed when it came to having enough hospital beds to handle a surge in patients expected in the days after a moderate flu outbreak and in having enough nurses in an emergency.

Among the areas in which the state did well were having enough laboratories and lab scientists to test for influenza, anthrax, plague and other bioterrorism threats; vaccinating the elderly against flu and pneumonia; having a disease tracking system compatible with the national one; and increasing funding for public health services.

"Washington state achieved one of the highest scores," said Nicole Speulda, a spokesman for the trust. "But that doesn't mean it is time for it to sit back on its laurels. There is always room for improvement."

Speulda said the lack of hospital beds and nurses should be considered major concerns.

"Within two weeks of an outbreak, Washington state's hospital beds would be full," she said. "Washington state doesn't have enough nurses now even before a potential disaster."

A pandemic flu outbreak would be expected to last at least eight weeks, peaking at five weeks. Under a moderate flu outbreak, an estimated 2 million people nationwide would be hospitalized. Within two weeks of such an outbreak, demand for hospital beds in the state would exceed capacity by 37 percent, the report said.

Forty states, including Washington, have nursing shortages. The shortage in Washington is estimated at 2,700 nurses, the report said.

Despite the solid ratings in the report, state officials said they were far from complacent in preparing for a health emergency.

"We have much more work to do," said Mary Selecky, the state's secretary of health. "It's a race you can't win, but you have to keep at it."

Selecky said the state is taking steps to alleviate its nursing shortage, including expanding educational opportunities. But she added that the problem was a tough one because the nursing population is aging.

As for a shortage of hospital beds, Selecky said it was hard to balance the day-to-day needs with the expanded needs in an emergency.

"There is no easy answer," she said.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Selecky said, emergency planning has been a high priority for the state.

"Our goal is to ensure public health can respond to any emergency," Selecky said.