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Hill Bracing For Smallpox

With a likely war in Iraq heightening fears of terrorism, fewer than half of Capitol Hill’s first responders have been immunized with the vaccine used to protect individuals against an attack involving deadly smallpox.

There is concern in Washington’s intelligence and security circles of a new round of terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, possibly including the Capitol, and officials say the terrorists’ choice of weapons this time could be biological pathogens such as smallpox — a disease last seen in the United States in 1949.

The vaccinations are part of a larger strategic plan being executed by the Attending Physician’s office to prepare for a massive medical emergency should terrorists strike at Congress. Within the past year, the office has acquired a mobile medical unit that can be rapidly deployed should the Capitol’s medical offices become uninhabitable, House disbursement records for the fourth quarter of 2002 reveal.

The Attending Physician’s office has also been spending significant amounts of money on various vaccines and pharmaceuticals, disbursement records show. Some of the largest payments were to the Department of Defense. Between October 2001 and September 2002, the Attending Physician paid more than $63,400 to the Defense Department for unspecified pharmaceuticals. The Office of Attending Physician also listed payments for hepatitis vaccines, yellow fever vaccines and other vaccines that were not specified.

“The Office of Attending Physician is preparing in a number of ways for the threats that face the country and Capitol Hill in particular,” a spokesman for the Attending Physician’s office said.

So far, members of the Capitol’s medical team have received the smallpox vaccination, but the Capitol Police have not yet designated those officers who will receive the shot.

“Most of our medical people have been vaccinated,” said the Attending Physician’s spokesman, who added that the office is “ready to go” and vaccinate police officers once officials submit a list of names.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said the department plans to finalize the list by next week.

“We’re still exploring it,” Gainer said. The responsibility of identifying officers has been tasked to Deputy Chief James Rohan. “I asked for it by early next week. The [list] portion isn’t very complicated. It’s probably almost obvious who ought to be [vaccinated], but I wanted to give him the opportunity to make that recommendation.”

Even though Capitol Hill’s first responders are receiving the shot, there is no plan to vaccinate the 540 Members and delegates who represent the nation’s 50 states and five territories.

“Members will be treated by CDC guidelines,” the Attending Physician’s spokesman said. “Right now first responders and Capitol Police will be vaccinated and there is no plan to do the general population.”

Most Members interviewed Tuesday said they would refuse preferential treatment to receive the vaccine before it was made available to the general public, acknowledging it would be a politically unwise to do so.

In terms of “institutional survival, there have got to be safeguards,” said Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.). “But individual survival, I would say that we are on an absolute par with our constituents.”

“I don’t like the message that sends,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

“I suspect that given the fact the Capitol building itself is still a target it might make some good sense, but I certainly wouldn’t put myself above my family or other people.”

“If it is going to be about the Capitol, it ought to be [given to] everybody here,” Nelson said.

“I probably would” take the vaccine if it was offered, said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), although he stressed that first responders had to receive priority.

Aides to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said the Illinois Republican has not received an inoculation or discussed doing so despite the fact that he is No. 2 in line of succession to the presidency.

The Attending Physician’s office estimates it will vaccinate between 30 and 40 police officers, but Gainer said, “It’s too early to tell” if all rank and file officers will be given the shot.

Gainer said once the list is completed, the department would “get the individuals from that unit together and explain the police rationale” for vaccinations. Officers will then begin setting up individual appointments with the Office of the Attending Physician to discuss the benefits and the risks.

“Everybody needs a very good understanding of the benefits of this program, as well as some of the risks,” Gainer said. “The Attending Physician has been very open and deliberative about sharing that information.”

The Attending Physician’s office’s new hospital on wheels was custom-designed by a company called Emergency Management Equipment, which manufactures special mobile command, communications and surveillance vehicles for state, local and federal government agencies.

Spending records for the Attending Physicians Office’s “triage center,” provided as part of an emergency supplemental funding package, show that Congress purchased a “chassis” from the company last December at a cost of $174,900.

The company’s Web site noted that it recently created a new mobile medical unit for a “confidential client.” The vehicle has a 40-foot Spartan Chassis and utilizes a 330-horsepower Cummins Diesel Engine.

The new mobile unit is equipped with a satellite TV dish as well as state-of-the-art computer systems.

According to the EME Web site, its Emergency Mobile Medical unit incorporates a laboratory and two examining rooms. It is a wheelchair accessible unit, with such equipment as in-line suction, an oxygen system with humidifiers, a crash cart, locking drug cabinet, galley, receptionist area, network capabilities, a cellular system and a fully-enclosed tent room that would hold up under all weather conditions.

Since 2001, the Office of Attending Physician has been utilizing the “e-immune software” of a company called I-Trax, a population health management solutions company.

According to a press release from the company, the software was installed for “tracking immunizations and skin test data at the Pentagon and the Office of Attending Physician on Capitol Hill.”

The press release explains that the e-immune system is intended help the OAP with “data tracking that may be required as a result of bioterrorism related threats, including diagnosis of symptoms, pharmacological treatments, vaccinations and adverse event reporting for conditions such as anthrax and smallpox.”

Suzanne Nelson contributed to this report.

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