October 26, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Doctors and emergency teams know how to respond if there is an anthrax or other biological scare in Union County.

Public health officials, though, have long-term concerns about funding for special needs as well as ongoing public health.

David Still, executive director of the Center for Human Development and the public health director, said Friday that the countys public health department is underfinanced.

For a small event, we can pull people off other jobs, he said. But were underfunded for the public health piece.

Still said that the department does not have the funds to hire additional people, and he said that when public health emergencies occur, other public health work does not get done.

For example, we cant do such things as follow up on sexually transmitted diseases, he said.

Dr. James Winde, the countys public health officer, said that he agrees with last weeks testimony to a legislative committee that more money is needed for public health departments to hire and train employees.

We have a good general response process, Winde said. If you get an anthrax scare, everybodys got the right numbers, who to call.

The bottleneck in the management of a major scare, Winde said, is in the laboratory. All samples of material suspected to contain anthrax or other diseases would be sent to the state Health Division for testing.

Locally, the response teams involve police agencies, the La Grande Fire Departments hazardous materials teams and public health.

The system could be fined-tuned with more dollars, Winde said. We really dont have a good response program for specifics.

Public health officials had hoped the Oregon Legislature would allocate about $50 million to be divided among the counties for public health, but the request was not approved.

We were already behind the eight-ball, Still said. This puts us further behind.

Public Health nurse Charlie Gillis of CHD said that money will be needed in other areas, and Winde agrees.

Were going to have a disease here in the next three to four months that will kill 50,000 people (nationwide), Winde said. The plain, old flu.

Now, there is a real threat, Gillis said. In terms of a threat to Union County, do we need to invest our limited resources in anti-bacterial terror concerns or do we need to invest in measures to test for such diseases as TB or the flu? These are very real, already present public health threats.

Gillis said public health has received only a few individual inquiries since the anthrax scare hit the East Coast.

Weve had a lot of agency work, back and forth, he said.

The La Grande Fire Departments hazardous materials team, which is called to locations where any kinds of hazardous chemicals or biological agents are suspected, has also had only a few calls.

Weve probably had three calls, said Chief Bruce Weimer. What were getting is inquiries, people wanting to know what to do.

Weimer said procedures are in place for evaluating the calls. The hazardous materials team responded to a call from Eastern Oregon University when a small amount of white powder was found in a restroom. Other calls have involved mail that has come from the East Coast.

Like the public health officials, Weimer said hes more

concerned about ongoing


Im more concerned about having firefighters available for structure fires; more concerned about having EMTs and equipment to deal with the emergencies were going to have, he said.

Weimer agreed with Windes assessment about lab testing in the event of a larger incident.

Im pretty confident we can deal with a threat with our current level of training, but quick identification is a different story, he said.

Should anthrax be a viable suspect in an incident, well start treatment while waiting for a positive identification. Wed isolate the area and wait for the results. That would take part of a business out of commission, Weimer said.

Thats what the terrorists want to do, they want to disrupt life.

CHD has put an information center on its Web site, with links to the Centers for Disease Control and other information sources. The site is