Senators Cite Lack of Training for Detection, Containment at Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Senator Mark Dayton today called on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (HSGAC) to review the current state of the nation's preparation for a pandemic flu outbreak. In letters to the committee's chair and ranking member, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Dayton and Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) cited "terribly inadequate" preparation and training at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and expressed concerns about the lack of funding and coordination between the federal agency and state and local responders.
"Avian influenza is potentially an extremely serious threat to our national security," said Dayton. "Our ability to prevent or contain an outbreak is dependent upon advance planning and coordination among federal, state, and local governments. Without this preparation, the consequences could be catastrophic. It is imperative that the Senate's oversight Committee exercise that responsibility immediately."
The Senators' letter was prompted by recent reports that DHS officials may lack critical training to prevent a deadly strain of avian flu from entering the United States. Dangerous lapses in front line protections and containment were revealed, by the Associated Press, just last week at New York's JFK Airport, where a customs official discovered live birds in the luggage of a passenger from Vietnam. According to DHS, the birds were not moved to a quarantine area upon their discovery, despite the fact that Vietnam has the world's highest fatality rate from avian flu.
In November, the Bush Administration announced its National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, but, to date, it has not provided any details on a comprehensive response plan. The Department of Homeland Security has been tasked with overall management and federal coordination of preparation efforts. In their letter, the Senators urged the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which oversees DHS, to hold hearings on the state of pandemic flu preparation and interagency coordination.
This week, the Senate is considering the FY2006 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, which includes an additional $2.3 billion for avian flu preparation.
The full text of the Senators letter is below.
April 27, 2006
The Honorable Susan M. Collins Chairman Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs United States Senate Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Madam Chairman:
Since the White House announced its National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza in November, preparation and training of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) staff remains terribly inadequate. We are deeply concerned about recent reports that DHS inspectors lack adequate training to detect and contain possible human cases of avian influenza before they enter our borders, and are equally concerned with the lack of funding and coordination by the federal government to assist state and local responders with efforts to plan and prepare for pandemic influenza.
As part of the President's National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, DHS has been tasked with overall domestic incident management and federal coordination. This responsibility includes: "[e]nsuring that federal departments and agencies, including federal health care systems, have developed and exercised preparedness and response plans that take into account the potential impact of a pandemic on the federal workforce, and are configured to support state, local and private sector efforts as appropriate." In addition, the President has committed to allocating $644 million of his proposed $7.1 billion in funding for pandemic influenza to be directed toward coordinating preparedness and response plans at the federal, state, and local levels.
As part of this preparedness, DHS should be coordinating efforts with other agencies, including the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Defense, as well as state and local authorities, medical personnel, public health professionals, and emergency responders. With multiple federal agencies expected to announce their pandemic plans in the next few weeks, it is imperative that we gain a better understanding as to how DHS ensures that these plans can be carried forth in a cooperative, uniform manner that does not replicate the failures in the response to Hurricane Katrina. It is also important to learn how DHS, with its responsibilities for customs enforcement, emergency management assistance, and the National Disaster Medical System, is itself planning and preparing for the possibility of a pandemic flu outbreak.
As part of its oversight responsibilities, the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs should review the state of emergency pandemic influenza preparedness, particularly with regard to the H5N1 avian strain, and make recommendations as to where further action and coordination is necessary.
We must ensure we are sufficiently prepared at all levels of government to deal with a possible outbreak, and we strongly encourage you to hold hearings on our government's efforts to prepare for pandemic influenza and DHS's efforts to coordinate among agencies in this response.
Thank you for your consideration of our request. We look forward to your response.
Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mark Dayton, and Barack Obama