Feds laud state health lab
The state Health Department laboratory was certified this month as a biosafety level 3 laboratory -- part of ongoing improvements to prepare Hawaii for public health threats.
"This is really important," said Health Director Chiyome Fukino. "This means we are safe enough in this environment to handle bugs that would otherwise have to be sent to the mainland for analysis."
A biosafety level 3 facility can work with potentially airborne microorganisms that pose high risk of infection, including tuberculosis, certain types of encephalitis and the bacterium that causes Q fever. It has tight access restrictions and protection requirements.
Hawaii's public health lab and others throughout the country are using advanced DNA "fingerprinting" techniques and reporting to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database. This allows states to recognize outbreaks from bacteria that can cause severe illness, such as E. coli.
Fukino noted the laboratory's new certification in an interview discussing a CDC report assessing the states' preparedness for public health threats, including natural, biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear events.
The report shows Hawaii's preparedness efforts overall are "excellent," she said. "We make the most out of our dollars."
Hawaii received more than $43 million under a CDC Public Health Emergency Preparedness cooperative agreement from fiscal years 2002-2007.
Fukino said the money is intended to help public health agencies become updated. After Sept. 11, 2001, she said, the federal government looked around the country and found the public health system "in shambles. It was poorly funded for decades."
She said much of the federal money here has been spent to improve the public health infrastructure.
"We knew we had issues with our laboratory and still do," she said. "We tried to upgrade equipment and training of staff.
"The second thing was for that infrastructure to do outreach to community partners to get prepared."
Fukino emphasized that preparedness is a continuing challenge, requiring new policies, procedures and skills to accommodate new technology and events nationally and worldwide.
She said the Health Department is developing systems to provide earlier warning of a health threat and pushing harder on disease surveillance, public education and individual preparedness.
Besides inadequate "bricks and mortar infrastructure," she cited major issues in work force development and training for new skills.
"A lot of times people think it's like a new car. You put a key in and anybody can drive it," she said. But new laboratory equipment requires new training "to make sure the results are dependable and real," she said.
The CDC report highlighted a full-scale Health Department exercise last June with the U.S. Postal Service to test the Biohazard Detection System.
Federal, state and city agencies participated in the exercise, called Maka'ala II, to detect anthrax spores in the mail sorting facility near Honolulu Airport. Employees were screened in a decontamination area and sent to a dispensing clinic for medicine.
Kate Gaynor, Health Department hazards preparedness coordinator and acting bioterrorism branch chief, said the CDC report "will go a long way to showing people what sorts of preparedness activities are going on across the country, not just in our state."