By Chris N Mangal, MPH, Director of Public Health Preparedness and Response, APHL; Rick France, PhD, MPH, Chemical Threat Coordinator, Bureau of Public Health Laboratories – Tampa, Florida Department of Health
Many of us are keenly aware of the upcoming presidential elections. The 24 hour cable news is inundating the public with the minutia of each campaign tactic, misfire or other rhetoric — it’s hard to miss that this is a critical time for the American people. So first pitch, whatever party you support – ensure you vote.
Second pitch – prior to voting, learn some more about the candidates and their platforms. That is, learn more about the services they support and how those services in turn support your community.
Speaking of supporting your community… a big part of our jobs is to educate people about public health, specifically public health laboratories and their role in protecting the nation’s health. Given that the country is ablaze with hot button political issues and the Republican National Convention kicked-off yesterday, we thought this is a great time to highlight Florida’s Bureau of Public Health Laboratories (BPHL), a critical component of the Florida Department of Health, charged with protecting the public health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the state. The BPHL supports Florida’s county health departments, physicians, hospitals and other Florida Department of Health program components by providing public health diagnostic and reference laboratory services.
The four BPHL laboratories (located in Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami and Pensacola), in addition to the Bureau of Food Laboratories of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services, comprise the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) in Florida. In addition to their daily functions, these laboratories have been planning for over a year to be ready for the activities surrounding the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, convening from August 27 to August 30. The four laboratories continue frontline efforts to prepare for and respond to all hazard threats such as natural disasters (What if Hurricane Isaac wreaks havoc on the Gulf states?); acts of terrorism (Remember anthrax 2001?) or emerging infectious diseases (West Nile Virus).
The Florida BPHL is not new to unusual biological events. In October 2001, they received a specimen from a patient at a south Florida hospital. The specimen was identified as positive for B. anthracis – anthrax. This turned out to be the index case for the American Media Inc. intentional release, and the subsequent Amerithrax (as it came to be known) Outbreak.
What do Florida’s public health laboratories do on a routine basis?
The LRN laboratories provide rapid detection of threat agents and expand the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to analyze a large number of patient samples by using unique high-throughput analysis capabilities when responding to large-scale exposure incidents. Additionally, the LRN for Biological Terrorism Preparedness (LRN-B) has continued to provide training to the sentinel clinical laboratories for the packaging and shipping of infectious agents.
What is being done specifically for the Republican National Convention?
- The LRN-B component of the public health laboratory has stepped up their outreach and training with first responders on sample collection for white powder and other incidents.
- The LRN for Chemical Threat Preparedness (LRN-C) has been doing more outreach and training with the local health and medical community on awareness of and preparedness for chemical threats and exposure. In fact, the BPHL-Jacksonville is one of ten chemical surge capacity laboratories for the CDC and is able to detect metabolites of toxic chemical agents including blister agents, blood agents, nerve agents, hazardous industrial chemicals, toxic elements and biological toxins.
- More importantly, these four laboratories worked together with the LRN-B and LRN-C to conduct a joint biological and chemical statewide exercise in preparation for the RNC. The exercise, conducted in February 2012, involved over twenty local, state and federal agencies as well as numerous hospitals and county health departments.
- The BioWatch Program, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) nationwide effort to detect the release of biological pathogens in the air, will also be on heightened awareness with an increase in surveillance. Additional staff have been brought in to assist with these increased surveillance efforts.
- The BPHL will continue working closely with the Hillsborough County Health Department’s epidemiology program, which will be “extra vigilant” with their surveillance activities during the RNC. Epidemiologists will be paying close attention in particular to any reports of patients with an unusual rash, a food-related illness, cases of bloody diarrhea, any unexplained severe infectious illness or death in an otherwise healthy person.
The Florida BPHL has planned and prepared extensively for the upcoming RNC. Although there is always the possibility of the unexpected occurring, with increased outreach, training and exercises the laboratories are prepared to be on the frontlines no matter what. It’s all in day’s work!