Pennsylvania & Bio-Terror

Title: Early-Warning Bioterror Research Puts Pittsburgh On Bush's Itinerary
February 5, 2002

Abstract: In the event of a bioterrorism attack, early detection could save thousands of lives.

That realization has set off a stampede to develop technology for early-warning systems, as well as to snare funds earmarked in the president's budget for the fight against bioterrorism. President Bush, visiting here to push for increased funding for homeland security, will inspect a system under development for 2-1/2 years at the University of Pittsburgh.

The system, which can set off a beeper if there is a surge in respiratory distress and skin rashes in dozens of hospitals in western Pennsylvania, is being installed in Utah ahead of the Winter Olympics. Olympic officials, sensitive to bioterrorism risks, already have installed monitors to check the air for potentially dangerous substances.

The nation's inability to respond quickly to biological weapons was highlighted by the anthrax attacks last fall, in which officials seemed to respond slowly to confirmed cases of infection, even as deaths were reported. Up until then, most Americans had never heard of anthrax or considered the threat of bioterrorism urgent. But reports of random individuals dying of anthrax exposure created a near hysteria over what the administration was doing to counter and prepare for further threats.

Hospitals, for the most part, can detect an increase of certain ailments. The problem is pinpointing trends early and notifying health officials. Doctors in general are expected to notify the health department when they see public-health threats. But that doesn't always happen, or it often happens belatedly. And in the case of bioterrorist attacks, quick response is critical.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a computer-surveillance method for about 25 hospitals that represent more than half of the emergency-room visits in Allegheny County and a third of such visits in a 13-county area of western Pennsylvania.

The National Library of Medicine, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have together provided $700,000 in direct and indirect funding to develop the system. It monitors new cases, looking for unusual increases in flu-like symptoms, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, skin rashes, paralysis, encephalitis and hemorrhage. A graph showing the incidence of each symptom is updated constantly and can be displayed on a computer screen. The trend line should be roughly steady. If not, an alert is automatically sent. Another click of a button can show a map with the number of incidences reported within each patient's zip code.

The system identifies patients early in the disease process and then uses "brute-force computer power to find any interesting patterns among the sick individuals that would suggest that an unusual outbreak is occurring," said Dr. Michael Wagner, who developed the program, in testimony before Congress in November. By sorting patients with certain symptoms by zip code, the system can quickly pinpoint where an attack may have occurred. It doesn't require hospitals to make a special report; rather, it mines hospital computer records for relevant cases.

Speed is critical. "For an hour lost, the number of deaths can be in the hundreds or thousands. This tight coupling between detection and response is vital to stemming the numbers of illnesses and death that can occur using slower methods of detection," according to Dr. Wagner.

The University of Pittsburgh isn't the only place such technology is being developed. New Mexico has a touch-screen system installed at seven hospitals, in which staff members can enter incidences of flu-like illnesses, hepatitis and respiratory distress. The goal is to identify and link clusters of outbreaks. Boston, under a five-year $1 million grant from the CDC, has developed an electronic system for monitoring all emergency-room and acute-care facilities and reporting real-time data to the health department. On a national level, the CDC itself has been implementing an electronic disease-surveillance system, linking the country's testing laboratories with the agency.

For such technology to be useful, hospitals need computerized records. "A lot of hospitals really aren't ready to have their data mined; they're still using paper records," said Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. "And the ones least ready are the ones you most want -- the big hospitals in urban areas."

Success depends on quick action after notification of an outbreak. Moreover, privacy is expected to be a huge concern if systems are allowed to transmit patient information widely. The system that Pittsburgh is developing gathers only limited data such as age, gender and zip code, but not patients' names and birth dates (UCLA, 2002).

Pittsburgh Holds Terror Drill, Testing Bioterror Response
May 9, 2005
Security Info Watch

Abstract: Intermittent showers didn't change the plans that Mike Belluomini and three buddies made for Saturday.

"It's not every day you get to participate in a mass evacuation," said Belluomini, 18, of Mount Lebanon.

But the rain apparently kept enough folks at home that fewer than 7,000 showed up by 11 a.m. for the $750,000 terrorism response drill organized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at PNC Park, officials said.

Organizers were hoping that an offer of two free Pittsburgh Pirates tickets, a souvenir replica of the park, and an American Red Cross first aid kit for each volunteer - as well as a free concert by three classic hometown rockers - would draw upwards of 14,000 people. But officials were confident that participating emergency crews learned a valuable lesson anyway.

"Everybody has to be vigilant. Everybody has to be prepared. It can happen in our most rural areas, it can happen in our most urban areas," said Roland Mertz, the deputy director for the state's Office of Homeland Security.

Emergency crews will be critiqued in a report to be prepared on the drill in the coming weeks.

As a concert by B.E. Taylor, Joe Grushecky and Donnie Iris was wrapping up, a charge simulating an explosion was set off near a seating area and a smoke bomb meant to represent a suicide bombing ignited. A short time later, another smoke bomb simulated a poisonous sarin gas bomb.

About 300 of the volunteers who registered through an area American Red Cross chapter were made up to appear injured and wore orange and white tags that described their symptoms. They were evaluated and taken to local hospitals in an exercise that lasted more than six hours.

Other volunteers were also evacuated, with regular stadium personnel helping to direct them out of the ballpark. "Uninjured" spectators nearer the sarin gas, including an Associated Press photographer covering the drill, had to go through a water bath to be "decontaminated" as they left.

Michael Steinberg, 47, came with his wife, Dawn, 37, and son, Jacob, 14, to be among the evacuees.

"We knew it was a drill, but they gave you no clue as to what was happening," said Michael Steinberg. He said the family came largely out of curiosity, but acknowledged that the free baseball tickets were a factor - and they walked away with four tickets to the Washington Nationals game on June 20 and two to a Florida Marlins game on June 2.

"I think it was very realistic," Steinberg said. "Even though people knew we were supposed to evacuate, people still sat there not knowing what to do after it went off. You know, that initial 'stun factor' - What should we do?"

Prudence Norman, 49, of Elizabeth, had hoped to be among the "injured" but registered on the Red Cross site too late, after the 300 triage victims had already been selected.

"This time, I was just one of the general volunteers. I think next time I'll be one of the hurt," said Norman, who said she was impressed by the response and is now confident that she'd be safe in the event of a real attack.

Belluomini's buddy, Aaron Martin, 18, of Mount Lebanon, took a lighter view of the proceedings.

"I didn't have much to do on a Saturday morning, so as soon as we heard there were people playing (music) and you get free (Pirates) tickets, we were here," Martin said (Security Info Watch, 2005).

Title: Pennsylvania Bio-Terror Laboratory Fails Inspection
September 7, 2009

Pennsylvania-based BSL-3 BioLab fails, yet again, a safety inspection; the facility was finished in 2007 but has been beset by an assortment of delays, poor construction, and breakdowns

Allegheny County’s $5.6 million bio-terror laboratory in Lawrenceville has failed an inspection, delaying once again the opening of the facility that was finished in 2007 but has been beset by an assortment of delays, poor construction, and breakdowns. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that an independent inspector, Larry Milchak, cited the lab for faulty alarms signaling a power failure and poor seals around doors and other areas of the biosafety level-3 lab that could allow contaminated, potentially deadly air to leak out.

The Allegheny County Health Department has moved workers into other parts of the 10,000-square-foot facility and hopes to have the 500-square-foot “BSL-3” lab fixed, reinspected and operational in time for the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh 24-25 September.

The BSL-3 laboratory is outfitted with special ventilation systems, equipment, and safety features that allow it to test for bioterror agents like anthrax, plague, and botulism. Passing the inspection allows it to become part of the federal Laboratory Response Network. Although the lab will have the capacity to handle the worst of pathogens, the bulk of its work will involve regular county testing for infectious disease (HSNW, 2009).

Title: Pennsylvania Hospitals Given Grant To Fight Bioterror And Pandemics
December 21, 2009
Bio Prep Watch

Jameson and Ellwood City hospitals in Pennsylvania will receive a $1.6 million grant award to aid them in their fight against bioterrorism and pandemics.

The U.S. Defense Department grant, announced last week by U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, will allow health-surveillance technology to be manufactured and equipped by the ProcessProxy Corporation of Ellwood City for Lawrence County medical providers.

The health-surveillance technology will allow for the detection of bioterrorism and pandemic diseases while also improving patient care.

The Ellwood City Hospital features a 46-bed medical surgical unit, a 6-bed intensive coronary care unit, an 8-bed maternity unit, a 10-bed geriatric psychiatry unit and a 25-bed skilled nursing unit. The Jameson Memorial Hospital features 175 beds.

ProcessProxy’s Terry Rasjasenan told that the funding will create 12 hardware and software engineering jobs in Lawrence County. ProcessProxy is currently located at the offices of Dr. Vaudevan Rajasenan, an Ellwood City cardiologist.

The grant will also aid in the implementation of electronic health-record systems at Jameson and Ellwood City hospitals and medical offices county-wide, allowing data to be shared while treating patients who normally receive care at another facility.

Additionally, robotic technology will be manufactured by ProcessProxy in Ellwood City that will be utilized to analyze disease trends and facilitate new disease-prevention strategies (Bio Prep Watch, 2009).

Title: Pittsburgh Officials Dispute Report On Bio-Terrorist Attack Preparedness
January 1, 2012
Times Online

A report in a national publication claimed Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas are unprepared to handle a bioterrorist attack, and state and local officials dispute that conclusion.

In December, a report ranked the Pittsburgh region as one of the country's worst prepared to handle a terrorist attack using biological weapons. The report was based on a rating system put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ratings go from 0 to 100 and assesses a region's plan for handling a biological attack and the ability to carry out that plan, including a region's ability to receive, distribute and dispense medication, according to the CDC.

Wes Hill couldn't disagree more with the report. Hill, the Beaver County Emergency Services director and the chairman of the Region 13 Counter-Terrorism Task Force, said the report is "very misleading to the public."

The Region 13 Task Force encompasses Pittsburgh and the 13 surrounding counties in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hill said the report averaged scores for the region over the past several years, instead of looking at how the numbers have improved from year to year. Also, the report didn't include the most recent figures, for 2010-11.

The report was "not a good way of representing the data or the level of improvement," said Shannon Calluori, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. "Major improvements have been made over the past several years."

For 2007-08, the first year scores were given by the CDC, Beaver County received a rating of 42. By 2009-10, the score was up to 66.

The most recent score for Beaver County -- for 2010-11, which was not included in the average -- was an 81, Calluori said. That number is above what the CDC says is an acceptable preparedness score of at least 79.

Allegheny County's rating also started off at 42 for the first year but was up to a 99 in the most current years, Calluori said.

The scores are partially determined by what has been written down for the CDC as far as details of emergency preparedness plans, and the written reports to the CDC have also improved in terms of detail, she said.

"We are better prepared than we ever were," Hill said. "We'll continue to enhance that capability."

Planning and Practice
Over the past five years, the Region 13 Task Force has put a lot of time and money into creating an operations plan for a biological attack and practicing enacting that plan.

The CDC gave Pennsylvania more than $19 million in 2010 for public health preparedness planning. Some of that money came from the CDC's Cities Readiness Initiative, which focuses on improving preparedness in the country's major metropolitan areas.

Classes approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security were made available to all response organizations in the region to train and prepare first responders, Hill said.

In every county in the region, Beaver included, there have been drills to practice the mass distribution of pharmaceuticals, Hill said. He said the goal is to be able to distribute pills or give injections to the general public quickly and efficiently.

Practice exercises have been done with surrounding counties as well, Hill said. One drill was done in Butler with people from multiple counties coming into one distribution area with a drive-through dispensary.

One of the important components for Region 13 is that if one county needs help, it can pull resources from surrounding counties, Hill said. The counties work as a team.

Calluori said the region has proven its capability to dispense medication in a real situation as well. She cited the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic as an example of vaccines being successfully administered to thousands of people.

"We are prepared to deal with a major public health emergency," Calluori said (Times Online, 2012).

Title: Pennsylvania Community College Closes After Nerve Agent Threat
September 26, 2012
Bio Prep Watch

A Pennsylvania community college recently shut down after an anonymous caller threatened the campus with a chemical attack using a nerve agent.

Westmoreland County Community College, located in Youngwood, Pennsylvania, closed its main campus and eight satellite locations after a caller threatened to attack the school if his demands for money were not met, according WPXI.

“There was a threat to our campus and we are currently investigating,” school officials announced on Twitter, WPXI reports. “All campuses remain closed for the day.”

The caller asked for $1,600 and said he would release an “explosive chemical nerve agent” that would reach a four mile radius. No injuries or further incidents related to the threat have been reported.

“I went to my class. All the lights were off all the doors were closed,” a WCCC student said, WPXI reports. “I don’t know what goes through a person’s mind that makes them want to do this stuff.”

Pennsylvania State Trooper Steve Limani, a spokesman for the Greensburg barracks, confirmed that police are investigating the situation but said all information is being handled by school officials.

WCCC has not released further details about the incident but said they expected classes to resume the following day (Bio Prep Watch, 2012).

Title: Skin Infections Postpone High School Football Game
Date: September 30, 2012
MyFox Philly

Abstract: The big game against Pennsbury H.S. was canceled due to a MRSA outbreak. But students we spoke with say the school is taking the necessary precautions to make sure this skin condition stops in its tracks.

At first David Haun thought he had turf burn.  But it turns out, he had something worse. 

"It's not as itchy as poison ivy it's just a little itch like every once and a while you just wanna scratch at it."

Haun and nearly a third of the Council Rock South football team have a skin condition known as MRSA, a staph infection affecting the skin.

Not just itchy... But contagious.. And the school isn't taking the situation lightly.

In an email to the entire school community.. Principal Albert Funk explained the issue.. And that they were postponing their game against Pennsbury High School.

Players like Greg Paprocki have been lucky. No sign of MRSA so far, but worried he might be next. 

"I was very paranoid checking my body all over like every cut I was looking at it getting it checked out by the trainer just very very paranoid"

In the meantime, the entire school will be completely sanitized, especially the locker rooms, weight room and shower facilities.   Athletes in other sports were told to take home their gear as well.

FOX29 has been told that all of the players who have been affected have been cleared by their doctors to play in Monday night's makeup game (MyFox Philly, 2012).

Title: Pittsburgh-Based BIOSAFE Announces Strategic Partnership With Gelest
November 15, 2012

Pittsburgh- based BIOSAFE, Inc. a supplier of a unique antimicrobial polymer technology, announced today that it has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Gelest, Inc. of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, who is recognized worldwide as an innovator, manufacturer and supplier of silane, metal-organic and silicone materials.

The deal includes a cash investment, along with certain manufacturing and support services. As part of the deal, Gelest, Inc. has an exclusive license of the BIOSAFE products for Skin Care and Cosmetic applications.

According to Max Fedor, BIOSAFE's CEO, "We have been working informally with Gelest for several years. This strategic deal formalizes our relationship, enabling us to scale our business more rapidly, while relying upon Gelest for high quality manufacturing and expertise in silane chemistry. Through this affiliation, BIOSAFE will be in a stronger position to support its customers and to formulate products that meet specific market needs and applications. BIOSAFE will continue to build its business development and corporate operations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, currently at 2545 Penn Avenue."

BIOSAFE, Inc. is the developer of a patented, environmentally friendly antimicrobial polymer. The Company licenses its technology and supplies unique product formulations to leading consumer, medical and industrial products companies to protect against a wide range of microbes, including mold, mildew, bacteria, algae and viruses.

About the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse (PLSG) 
PLSG invests in and supports the growth of biosciences companies in western Pennsylvania. PLSG has a track record of excellence when it comes to attracting and growing life sciences companies in the region. Since its inception in 2002, the PLSG has invested $18.1 million in 73 companies which has leveraged $834million in additional capital to the region. The PLSG portfolio of companies represents an aggregate market valuation which the PLSG believes it conservatively estimates as over $1 billion. The PLSG has assisted 388 life sciences companies and has helped create or retain nearly 6,000 jobs in western Pennsylvania. In addition, 34 companies or venture capital firms have been provided with office or laboratory space and 13 have been relocated to Pittsburgh from outside of the region. (SacBee, 2012).