State lacking flu meds

Saturday, December 22
BOSTON — Massachusetts has not bought any antiviral medication to use in the event of a global influenza pandemic, and a tight fiscal year means that it may be shelved again this year.

The Bay State is just one of seven states that still have not purchased the drugs, according to a report released early this week about the country's emergency preparedness.

"If we're not equally prepared, then the capacity of the virus to spread not just in Massachusetts but elsewhere will be greater," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the nonprofit health advocacy group the Trust for America's Health. "Viruses don't respect state borders."

The annual report card also gave Massachusetts bad marks for not stockpiling medication and not having the capacity to test for biological threats. The state improved its score this year, fulfilling seven of the 10 emergency planning goals as opposed to six last year.

Sen. Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge, chairman of the Committee on Health Care Financing, reworked a bill initially filed by former Gov. Mitt Romney to put $36.5 million into beds, respirators and antiviral medication.

"All of the public health agencies suggest that it really is a matter of time before we see a serious outbreak in the United States," Moore said. "We have an opportunity to get antivirals, which stay good for at least five years. It makes sense to have an initial supply. If an outbreak occurred, we would look pretty unprepared."

The bill is sitting in Senate Ways and Means for approval, but a tough budget year means that the $36.5 million bill has little chance of passing intact, said Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven C. Panagiotakos, D-Lowell. He promised that some portion of the bill would move forward, however.

"We're just going over our different options of what we can do to keep it moving forward," Panagiotakos said. "I think we'll do something, I don't think we'll be able to do the $36 million. We won't be able to make a decision on it until after the first of the year."

Frank Singleton, health director in Lowell, said he is not overly concerned about the medication because he is unsure how effective Tamiflu or Relenza would be in the event of an epidemic. The additional beds and respirators included in the bill, however, are necessary.

The state has evacuation plans to at least three locations, including the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod and, possibly, the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Although the state's emergency says that the locations have 5,000 beds apiece, the beds have not been purchased, Singleton said.

"Nobody's got beds. They list the temporary alternative care centers which hospitals will use when a pandemic hits, but the beds never got appropriated," he said.

Tom Lyons, adviser in the Department of Public Health on emergency preparedness, said the state is ready and willing to buy supplies as soon as the Legislature funds them.

"It's clear our planning has gone under some assumptions. We've been planning on using specialty units to take on a surge of patients at hospitals, but we do not have that equipment at this point," Lyons said.

He echoed Singleton's concern that the effectiveness of the antivirals and pointed out that the state would get about 1 million doses from the federal government in the event of a pandemic. Levi still believes that a stockpile of doses should be on hand.

"There's a broad public health consensus that this is a risk worth taking because the odds are pretty good that there will be some impact," Levi said. "Most states have done this."

Moore said that, although he understands the lean budget year ahead, he hopes that Senate Ways and Means carves out funding for a vital precaution.

"I understand it's hard to get people to commit funds to something that may happen in future when they have demands for funds needed right now," he said. "But we need to make an investment for our own protection."


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