States take on bioterrorism

CDC funds to spur data management, integration, training

Health alert networks: A key opportunity

Technology companies will play a key role in helping states develop health alert networks. Establishing these networks is one of six areas being funded in a $918 million grant program by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assist states with bioterrorism
preparedness.

CDC's goals for creating health alert networks in each state:


Critical Capacities. The core expertise and infrastructure to be implemented as soon as possible:

? Communications connectivity

? Emergency communications

? Protection of data and information systems

? Secure electronic exchange of public health information


Enhanced Capacities to be added later to the networks:

? Support of emergency response management

? Full information technology support and services

Requirements for states to receive funding:
? Prepare a timeline for a plan that ensures 90 percent of the population is covered by the health alert network.

? Prepare a timeline for the development of a communications system that provides a 24x7 flow of critical health information among hospital emergency departments, state and local health officials and law enforcement officials.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will distribute more than $900 million to state governments in coming months for bioterrorism preparedness, including about $300 million slated for information technology solutions.

The funds will allow state and local officials to conduct needs assessments, build pharmaceutical stockpiles and improve information networks, creating opportunities for technology companies in education and training, data management, systems integration and wireless interoperability.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to advance the IT infrastructure of public health and support public health personnel," said Dr. John Loonsk, CDC's associate director of informatics.

In supplemental funding for fiscal 2002, Congress provided $918 million in emergency bioterrorism funds to state and local governments through cooperative agreements to be made by the CDC.

The supplemental funding vastly exceeds the $50 million in annual funding previously provided for the initiative, said Joe Henderson, CDC's associate director for terrorism preparedness.

The cooperative agreements will enable state and local government to establish the infrastructure necessary to participate in a national electronic public health information network.

"We must have one public health information network that is interoperable and integrated across functions and organizations," Loonsk said.

The network would enable health officials to track and respond to possible infectious disease outbreaks, as well as potential chemical, radiological and biological attacks ? going far beyond the 3-year-old CDC initiative to establish a network to provide electronic alerts.

The data to be shared through the network would enable federal and state health officials to identify trends, assist local health officials with case treatment and help law enforcement officials handle evidence, Loonsk said.

Because so many organizations are involved, the CDC is emphasizing system interoperability and the need to use
standards in the exchange of data, he
said.

Loonsk said the public health community needs software and technical assistance from the private sector in developing standards-based systems that will support the national network.

"This is not something that health departments can pursue on their own in terms of existing IT, or existing IT expertise," he said.

Although the CDC can send and receive information electronically from all 50 states, it wants to be able to put the same information into the hands of local health officials so they can respond rapidly to events, said CDC Director Julie Gerberding.

"There are still some gaps in alert systems to get to those people instantaneously," she said.

So far the CDC has received 62 applications for grants that would use the supplemental funding, Gerberding said. About half the applicants received grants without restrictions or requests for additional information, she said.

Texas is using $58 million in grant money to make its statewide health information network, which links 64 health organizations throughout the state, interoperable and standards-based. The goal is to provide connections among local health departments, hospitals and police, fire and emergency personnel that will cover 90 percent of the state's population, said Michael Mastrangelo, co-founder of the Texas Health Alert Network.

The prime contractors on the Texas Health Alert Network is Avnet Enterprise Solutions Inc., a unit of Avnet Inc. of Phoenix, and Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

Avnet received $2.7 million for the first phase of the project, completed in June, said Christine Ricker, account manager for Avnet Enterprise Solutions Team. The company has a one-year, $500,000 contract with two one-year options for support services that include help-desk support, network monitoring, outage management and dedicated onsite engineering, she said.

Dell Computer Corp. of Round Rock, Texas, provided each of the 64 sites with a server and five desktops or notebooks under a $700,000 contract, company officials said.

Local health officials can use the network to disseminate information about symptoms and treatment across the state via e-mail, fax and eventually wireless devices. They also can use the network to help them analyze data to detect and respond to real or potential outbreaks.

Bob Barr, director of Dell's government marketing, said the Texas Health Alert Network is a key example of government-to-government information sharing envisioned by e-gov initiatives.

"E-gov was initially citizen facing, but e-gov under homeland security has taken on the focus of sharing timely information between federal, state and local authorities. [The Texas network] shows that this can be done successfully," Barr said.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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