WASHINGTON - No more than a few of the nation's governors showed up here the other day when some experts on bioterrorism were called in to brief the National Governors Association's winter meeting about the threat the country faces.
The governors had just finished a morning session at which they discussed more manageable things. They were about to have lunch and then go over to the White House to confer with President Bush on such critical matters as their need for more federal aid for highway construction, which they felt his budget was short-changing.
The previous day, the governors had turned out in greater numbers to hear from a former colleague, Tom Ridge, who gave up the governorship of Pennsylvania after Sept. 11 to become Mr. Bush's director of homeland security. Mr. Ridge spent most of his time telling his old buddies about problems with airport security procedures, which have encountered much criticism from passengers unhappy about long lines to get through the checkpoints.
Joining Mr. Ridge was Donald Henderson, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness in the Department of Health and Human Services, who warned that bioterrorism was getting short shrift in the nation's greater defensive focus on threats from more traditional means of destruction. But judging from the sparse turnout for the bioterrorism panel the next day, the governors seemed more worried about those highway construction dollars.
The panel experts had a simple but urgent message for them: Don't wait for a biological attack to happen; start preparing for it now. The task cannot be done, they said, without a public awareness that there are reasonable steps that can be taken and resources to deal with it in advance.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the first thing the governors have to do is educate the people in their states about what they could face, "but not scare them." The people should get a good idea of the infrastructure of the public health system so they could understand it and be enlisted to strengthen it, he suggested.
A major challenge, he said, is trying to imagine a situation in which a city's population must be inoculated against a deadly contagious disease such as anthrax. "It's hard to get your hands around that," he said. When there was an outbreak of smallpox in New York in 1947, however, 6 million residents were vaccinated, he recalled, limiting the loss to only 12 lives.
Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, agreed that knowing there are defenses against bioterrorism is a big part in getting public support for them.
In an interview, she contrasted the current situation with the concern over nuclear attack in the United States in the 1960s. Then, she said, a fallout shelter construction craze faltered because "people were left feeling nothing could be done" to protect themselves in the event of nuclear attack. This time, she said, there are possible responses if they are begun now, so it is critical that Americans understand they are not helpless.
Beyond that, both experts said it is up to the governors to mobilize all aspects of their communities, private as well as public, to meet the challenge. Hospitals, health care organizations, doctors, insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors - all should be brought into coordinated planning for a bioterrorism emergency, they said.
Concerning the drug companies, Dr. O'Toole said, "Right now they're making Viagra. I know that's important to many people." But, she said, the times require more attention to mass production of antidotes to deadly diseases, with all facets of the health care community involved in treatment planning.
Unfortunately, she said, most Americans have the same attitude about a bioterrorism attack that they have about suffering a heart attack - they think about it and will take steps to reduce the danger only after it has happened.
The bioterrorism panel was a wake-up call to the governors and one that will need more response from them than they seemed to show at their winter meeting. They concentrated more on extracting more help from Uncle Sam for such programs as highway construction and other peacetime endeavors.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.