U.S. Warehouses $7B in Disaster Health Supplies—But Who Will Use Them?

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June 27, 2016; NPR, “Shots”

It seems entirely reasonable for the U.S. government to have supplies on hand should a nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) disaster strike within our borders. Until recently, however, there was precious little information made available to the public about the quantities, costs, or locations of the six estimated facilities maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and collectively known as the “Strategic National Stockpile”.

The program budget to maintain the $7 billion stockpile is about $500 million a year. Supplies are guarded, cataloged, and rotated to ensure that vaccines and other perishable supplies are fresh when needed. Much effort goes into ongoing threat assessments to match inventories with most likely emerging public health threats. However, the maintenance budget remains the same while the inventory increases and different supplies are added, placing stress on the program.

That’s not the biggest challenge for the Strategic National Stockpile:

“The warehouse is fine in terms of the management of stuff in there. What gets in the warehouse and where does it go after the warehouse, and how fast does it go to people, is where we have questions,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

Disaster response plans rely on the presence of state and local public health employees and volunteers across the country ready and able to respond within hours of a declared emergency.

“We have drastically decreased the level of state public health resources in the last decade. We’ve lost 50,000 state and local health officials. That’s a huge hit,” says Dr. Tara O’Toole, a former homeland security official who is now at In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit that helps bring technological innovation to the U. S. intelligence community. She wishes local officials would get more money for things like emergency drills. “The notion that this is all going to be top down, that the feds are in charge and the feds will deliver, is wrong.”

NPQ has devoted much attention to nonprofit intermediaries in the context of services from FEMA disaster preparedness role in Katrina to HUD’s role in neighborhood housing support. To protect the disaster health needs of our nation, it’s past time to update the distribution and deployment plans to make effective use of the billions of dollars in available federal stockpiles.—Michael Wyland