Report: S.C. not ready for health emergencies

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina is among 13 states that don't have adequate plans to distribute vaccines and medical supplies if a massive disaster occurs, according to a report released Tuesday.

The fifth annual "Ready or Not?" report by the research group Trust for America's Health rates how well states have prepared for public health emergencies. South Carolina performed adequately in eight of the 10 categories that were measured, including possessing flu vaccines and holding emergency drills.

Cotton Howell, York County's director of emergency management, is encouraged by that ranking, saying the county has met and exceeded requirements for emergency management without increasing staff.

"By what I see here, I'm encouraged by it," Howell said of the annual report.

But South Carolina missed the mark on its preparedness to distribute emergency vaccines, antidotes and medical supplies from a federally managed stockpile of supplies. The state scored a 58 on a new federal evaluation this year of stockpile planning and management -- two points below the trust's acceptable level of 60 points.

The low marks largely were due to security concerns, said Jim Beasley, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The state has since bolstered security plans and recruited volunteers who can serve during a pandemic, which should increase its score on next month's re-evaluation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said.

"Most of the shortcomings end up being manpower issues," he said. "It takes a lot of law enforcement officers to protect sites and guard transportation vehicles."

In York County, Howell said, there's a very elaborate plan for distributing these medications. York and other regional counties have good plans in place, and he said they've done exercises and drills to test them.

Distribution requires people to receive supplies, transport them, load and unload them off trucks and sometimes repackage large shipments, Beasley said.

The Bush administration has encouraged states to stock up on antivirals in the event of an influenza pandemic. Under one program, the federal government will pay for a quarter of the cost of buying Tamiflu or Relenza, and states pay the remainder.

Tuesday's report gives South Carolina a point for using 80 percent of its federal allocation to buy the flu treatments. A final order for the antivirals placed last month will bring South Carolina to 100 percent, Beasley said.

The state has spent about $7 million for enough antivirals to treat 435,000 people, and the federal government has committed to supply an additional 618,000 treatments for South Carolinians. The combined stockpiles will cover 25 percent of the state's population -- what officials believe to be a worst-case scenario, according to a state report issued last month, titled "South Carolina Prepares: Pandemic Influenza."

"Of all the threats that South Carolina faces, it is pandemic influenza that has the greatest potential for death and serious illness," the report states.

The antivirals will expire in five years, but spending the money was a "gamble everyone felt was necessary to take," Beasley said. "It's better to have it and never need it."

South Carolina also lost a point in the evaluation out Tuesday because it said flu vaccination rates dropped for seniors ages 65 and older. About 65 percent of South Carolina's elderly received the vaccine over a three-year span from 2003 to 2005, compared with 63 percent from 2004 to 2006, according to the report. However, the survey used for that measurement had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points. That means South Carolina's been fairly consistent, Beasley said, since the state's 2 percentage-point drop falls within the error margin.