Federal Officials Practice Bird Flu Response

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Readiness for a possible avian flu pandemic requires not only government action but also preparations by families, businesses, schools and churches, White House officials said yesterday after conducting a drill on the topic.

"We all must be prepared, and we all have a role to play in the nation's preparation," Frances Frago Townsend, White House homeland security adviser, told reporters after the four-hour drill, which involved some Cabinet members, military officers and others. The "tabletop exercise" was meant to gauge government responses to a major U.S. outbreak of bird flu, which has killed at least 69 people in Asia since late 2003.

Townsend declined to give details about the drill or its results. "It's meant to push federal resources to the breaking point and to ensure that we're prepared, that we identify gaps and then we plan to fill them," she said. "We accomplished that this morning."

In such drills, she said, participants are presented with a scenario, identify options and ask whether each of the federal agencies has a plan to fill gaps that have been identified. "And, quite frankly, I think we did quite well."

Neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney participated. Bush spent much of the chilly morning riding a bike at a Secret Service training facility in Beltsville. "The president knows pretty clearly what his role is," Townsend said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the federal government alone cannot handle a major flu outbreak. "State and local governments, state and local communities, schools need to have a plan, businesses need to have a plan, faith organizations need to have a plan," he said. "The public health community understands a pandemic. . . . It's now time to engage a broader community so that we have a true nationwide response effort that's not only planned, but exercised and ready."

Neither he nor Townsend offered specifics for possible plans, but each urged Americans to seek information from the Web site http://pandemicflu.gov/ . Leavitt plans to visit health officials in every state to discuss strategies.

He and Townsend said vaccines and antiviral drugs will be central to combating a major flu outbreak, and they urged Congress to fund Bush's request for $7.1 billion to speed production of such drugs. Leavitt said: "We need to have a domestic surveillance system. When it happens in the United States, having the capacity to know what's occurring within the health care system is of vital importance."

Townsend said: "We currently have no evidence that a pandemic flu in this country is imminent. That said, we are fairly warned, and the time to prepare for that pandemic is now."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company