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Utahns looking out for bioterrorism

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Possible bioterrorism or infectious disease outbreaks during the Winter Games would likely first be noted by health officials, thanks to a new epidemiological surveillance center that will watch for those horrors and more.

Media got a look today at the new "EPICENTER," where enhanced epidemiological surveillance will take place starting in the days just before the Olympics. The goal is to spot "trends" that could signal infectious disease outbreaks, whether deliberately or accidentally caused.

The center, located in the Cannon Health Department, will also serve as a "rumor buster," said Dr. Scott Williams, deputy director of the state Department of Health.

Although bioterrorism is ultimately a criminal act, it has long been recognized as a serious public health issue. And it is most apt to be detected through epidemiological surveillance — by monitoring illnesses at area hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, work sites and even among veterinarians to detect trends that any single location might consider a single or a few incidents.

They will look for symptoms that may signal the start of something more dark than a simple illness, including severe respiratory, gastrointestinal, central nervous system and skin complaints. The initial assessments will occur at the local health level, with the information given to the EPICENTER for broader review.

The state Health Department, joined by six county health departments, the departments of Environmental Quality and Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will not only coordinate information from what it's calling sentinel reporting sites, but participating officials will actively visit those sites and go

through logs to spot suspicious incidents early.

The center is also working with law enforcement, emergency medical services, the International Olympic Committee and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to respond to any incident. Health officials are also responsible for food and environmental inspections, emergency medical services both at and away from venues, health promotion and public information and disaster response.

They hope there won't be a disaster, but "we're ready for whatever. We've been planning this for four-plus years," said Ralph Clegg, Utah County Health Department.

State Health Department staff will man the center 16 hours a day (with someone available for off-hour occurrences), creating a daily report culled from information from the other agencies, law enforcement and sentinel sites, said EPICENTER manager John Contreras. All those agencies will be involved in daily conference calls during the Games. And plans are in place should an outbreak of any kind occur.

County health departments have also cross-trained inspectors to keep on top of health inspections at the venues, especially watching food safety and sanitation, said Salt Lake Valley Health Department spokeswoman Pam Davenport. Though county health has its own coordinating center, it will work closely with the EPICENTER, too.

Outside the Olympics, "it will be business as usual," Clegg said. "We haven't forgotten the citizens." Local health departments have beefed up operations for the Games by hiring temporary staff trained to conduct inspections.

Meanwhile, state Emergency Medical Services staff will coordinate deployment of ambulances and other emergency medical staff at venues and in the communities.

E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com