Sunday, November 29, 2015         

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Islands' readiness for crisis doubted

By Dan Nakaso


Hawaii health officials in 2007 and 2008 were unable to rapidly identify E. coli or adequately staff laboratories to respond to an outbreak such as the H1N1 flu, according to a national survey released yesterday that dinged Hawaii's preparedness for public health disasters.

Island officials also did not activate an emergency operations center in 2007 or 2008 as part of a drill or real event - a criticism that Hawaii's acting health director disputed yesterday.

Hawaii dropped from a score of 8 last year to 7 this year - on a scale of 10 - in the report titled "Ready or Not? Protecting the Public's Health from Diseases, Disasters and Bioterrorism" by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Acting state Health Director Keith R. Ridley countered yesterday that Hawaii officials did activate emergency operations centers during drills in 2007 and 2008 and said he plans to dispute the finding.

But Ridley said the criticisms could lead to additional federal funding to shore up areas that need improvement.

"We always want to draw attention to where we've done better and continue to do better, as well as areas we need to improve," Ridley said. "Funding may be available to help us do better."

In 2007, Hawaii had 40 reported cases of E. coli 0157:H7 and another 13 in 2008, according to Health Department records.

Six cases of E. coli reported in December 2007 were traced to Sekiya's Restaurant in Kaimuki, the site of the islands' worst E. coli outbreak. A seventh case of E. coli related to Sekiya's was reported in February 2008.

According to the "Ready or Not?" report, Hawaii health officials in 2007 and 2008 were unable to rapidly identify E. coli and submit results within four working days 90 percent of the time.

Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said the criticism is not significant because the E. coli test takes three days and the results are reported on the fourth day - and then repeated for accuracy and quality assurance.

"There is a delay in reporting the results," Okubo said, "but it's not a big concern."

Hawaii's public health budget grew by 4.2 percent from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2010, primarily through federal stimulus grants to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus.

But Ridley does not dispute the report's finding that budget cuts left the State Laboratory unable to maintain staffing for five 12-hour days during six to eight weeks in 2007 and 2008 to respond to an infectious disease outbreak, such as H1N1.

The study looked at how each state performed in 10 categories and Hawaii was found lacking in three - along with six other states and the District of Columbia.

Eleven states fulfilled nine categories. Three states - Arkansas, North Dakota and Washington - had perfect scores of 10.

Iowa and Montana had the lowest scores of 5.

The report pointed out that budget cuts across the country threaten emergency public health preparedness.

Since fiscal year 2005, according to the report, funding for public health preparedness fell by 27 percent, when adjusted for inflation.

Since 2008, according to the report, 23,000 public health positions across the country have been cut.

Overall, 33 states and Washington, D.C., chopped public health funding from the 2009 fiscal year to fiscal year 2010.

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Study knocks Hawaii's emergency preparedness

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