The Pandemic Threat: Is Massachusetts Prepared?

June 09, 2006

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned yesterday that complacency is the biggest threat to preparing for a lethal flu pandemic. The national expert on flu pandemics also warned that the challenges of scale and coordination among federal, state and local levels must be met. “Hope is not a strategy” Dr. Julie Gerberding told a packed audience at Brandeis University’s Massachusetts Health Policy Forum.

There exists the possibility that the emerging H5N1 bird flu virus, which is similar to the 1918 strain, could mutate to create the next pandemic, with devastating consequences for every community. The Massachusetts Health Policy Forum convened this event to assess the Commonwealth’s state of readiness. Dr. Howard Koh, Associate Dean for Public Health Practice at the Harvard School of Public Health, moderated a panel of public health experts including Paul Cote, Commissioner of Public Health, and Representative Peter Koutoujian of Waltham, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, and Harold Cox, Chief Public Health Officer for Cambridge.

All panelists agreed that local communities are the front line of defense in the event of any large scale emergency. The lessons learned from Katrina point to the limited ability of the federal government to meet the needs of individual communities facing a widespread disaster.

Rep. Koutoujian wondered whether local communities could meet the challenges of any disaster without funding, leadership and adequate public health infrastructure. “Who is in charge?” Koutoujian asked. “We learned the hard way during Katrina.”

According to Cambridge health officer Cox, there is inadequate staffing and money, while relationships among responders including police, fire and health professionals, are weak. “Is all this sustainable while funding is being cut at the same time that we are being told to be prepared?” he asked.

In answer to the question of whether Massachusetts is prepared for a pandemic, Cox replied: “Well, sort of.”

The non-partisan Massachusetts Health Policy Forum is affiliated with the Heller School at Brandeis University. The issue brief from today’s session may be viewed at

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