Utah's in pretty good shape to face a public health emergency, according to a national report on state preparedness released Tuesday.
The Beehive State scored nine out of 10 in the "Ready or Not?" report produced by Trust for America's Health. It lost a point for not having a disease tracking system to collect and monitor data using the Internet. And even that's in the works, according to Dr. David Sundwall, executive director of the Utah Department of Health.
"We don't have the surveillance system we need," he said, "but we are in the process of getting it. It's in the governor's budget and we're moving ahead even before the funding. It will bring us up to date" and be compatible with the system used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other states.
Emergency preparedness has improved overall and 35 states scored an eight or higher on indicators that included having adequate plans to deliver emergency vaccines and medical supplies, having stockpiles of antivirals to use during a flu pandemic, adequate lab capability to test for biological threats and laws that protect health care volunteers from liability in a public health emergency. States were rated on whether they'd had emergency drills and on other criteria, as well.
Last year, Utah scored six out of 10, but it's not an apples to apples comparison. Each year the measures that the trust selects change somewhat. While that has given some states that didn't score well this year heartburn, Sundwall believes it makes the report more valuable.
"You can't game the system because they change the measures each year," he said. "It keeps you alert."
While Sundwall said that Utah is not yet prepared for everything, "I honestly feel pretty good" about its preparedness. "I base that on the quick and pretty efficient response we had to receiving Katrina evacuees."
And Utah's no neophyte at preparedness. Disaster planning was a big part of the run-up to the 2002 Olympics and has continued and improved since.
Sundwall said he's been particularly impressed with faith-based and health community response whenever there's been a need.
Still, there's more to be done, including increasing surge capacity in hospitals, he said.
"We live in fear of an earthquake or some major catastrophe. Our hospitals are pretty full. I think we'd have to look at alternatives to traditional hospitalization" if there were a public health calamity, and "that's not something we've done before."
The state's Medical Reserve Corps also needs beefing up, he said.
But Sundwall added that it's clear the potential for a public health crisis is being taken seriously in Utah. For instance, he said, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. will soon formally announce creation of a standing Pandemic Flu Advisory Committee that cuts across disciplines, not just public health.