It sounds like something out of a Cold War era movie. Boxes of medical supplies stacked high in government warehouses to help citizens in the event of a public health emergency.
However, this huge stockpile is very real. It is called the Strategic National Stockpile, and “Once Federal and local authorities agree that the SNS is needed, medicines will be delivered to any state in the U.S. in time for them to be effective. Each state has plans to receive and distribute SNS medicine and medical supplies to local communities as quickly as possible.”
For security reasons, the location and the number of warehouses that comprise the SNS are classified information – as is much of what is in them. “If everybody knows exactly what we have, then you know exactly what you can do to us that we can’t fix,” Greg Burel, director of the program told National Public Radio in a recent interview. “And we just don’t want that to happen.”
The SNS started in 1999 with an approximate $50 million budget. Since then, it has built an inventory in multiple warehouses that is valued at just over $7 billion. “If you envision, say, a Super Walmart and stick two of those side by side and take out all the drop ceiling, that’s about the same kind of space that we would occupy in one of these storage locations,” Burel said.
The SNS extensive inventory includes massive amounts of small pox vaccines, antivirals in case of deadly flu pandemic, medicines to treat radiation burns and sickness, chemical agent antidotes, wound care supplies, antibiotics and IV fluids.
NPR science writer Nell Greenfieldboyce recently visited an SNS. She was told she was the first reporter ever to visit the secret warehouses, and she had to sign a confidentiality agreement not to describe the location or the exterior of the facility.
A locked section of the warehouse stocks painkillers than can be addictive. A giant freezer is filled with medicines that need to be kept frozen. Greenfieldboyce described a humming sound that comes from the rows of ventilators that are charged once a month and sent out for maintenance once a year.
With an annual budget of more than half a billion dollars, the SNS is charged with deciding what to purchase for the stockpile. In order to do so, officials must determine which threats are realistic and which are not.
“That’s where we have a huge, complex bureaucracy trying to sort through that,” Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told Greenfieldboyce.
The government recently hired a firm called Gryphon Scientific to analyze how well the stockpile could respond to a range of health disaster scenarios.
Although he said he could not be specific on results of the study, Gryphon Scientific’s Rocco Casagrande told the NPR reporter, “One thing we can say is that across the variety of threats that we examined, the Strategic National Stockpile has the adequate amount of materials in it and by and large the right type of thing.”
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However, he pointed out that the studies were based upon a single type of attack at a time or a single type of weapon.
The brief shelf life of some of the newer medicines is a problem for the SNS. “These are often very powerful, very exciting and useful new medicines, but they are also very expensive and they expire after a couple years,” explained Dr. Tara O’Toole, a former Homeland Security official who is now at In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit that helps bring technological innovation to the U. S. intelligence community.
Another problem is the time it would take to get the medicines from the warehouses to the people who need them in the event of real emergency. “It is not going to be easy or simple to put medicines in the hand of everybody who wants it,” O’Toole told NPR.
The warehouse Greenfieldboyce visited contains 130 shipping containers, but who will be on the receiving end of these shipping containers during an actual emergency?
“While they do have plans for emergencies, and lists of volunteers, they’re volunteers,” said Paul Petersen, director of emergency preparedness for Tennessee. “And they’re not guaranteed to show up in the time of need.”
Local public health officials have had severe budget cuts and are underfunded, Petersen told NPR. “Over and over, I heard worries about this part of the stockpile system.”
O’Toole said, “We have drastically decreased the level of state public health resources in the last decade. We’ve lost 50,000 state and local health officials. That’s a huge hit.” She commented that emergency drills would be helpful, adding, “The notion that this is all going to be top down, that the feds are in charge and the feds will deliver, is wrong.”
Meanwhile, the secret warehouses continue to stockpile supplies. “We have the capability, if something bad happens, that we can intervene in a positive way, but then we don’t ever want to have to do that. So it’s kind of a strange place,” Burel told NPR.
“But we would be foolish not to prepare for those events that we could predict might happen.”
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