CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The federal Centers for Disease Control says West Virginia would be better served if its Bureau of Public Health had a senior epidemiologist to head up response to chemical leaks and other disasters.
The state DHHR asked CDC for a review following the Jan. 9 chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston and the the water emergency that followed.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Loretta Haddy said Tuesday what the CDC is recommending is not a criticism of the current staff but a recommendation that the state Bureau of Public Health be strengthened.
“What they’re asking is that we build an improved infrastructure to respond to environmental epidemiology events,” Haddy said.
The CDC review included the following statement about the state Bureau of Public Health:
“There is not a program for epidemiologic response to chemical or radiological incidents or other emergency environmental issues; an epidemiologist working in this area would be the ideal leader for epidemiological response to environmental disasters. This person could use their experience and contacts to rapidly coordinate a response, drawing on epidemiologists from other parts of the agency that have needed skill sets.”
The Bureau of Public Health asked for the review in late January after several dozen residents in parts of nine counties reported medical concerns in connection with the spill of crude MCHM from the Freedom Industries site.
Haddy said the current staff of epidemiologists did a tremendous job in the days and weeks after the spill but there’s always room to improve especially with a dedicated unit that would respond to similar emergencies.
“Disasters aren’t new to us it’s just the environmental capacity that we would like to strengthen,” Haddy said.
There are currently 31 epidemiologists in the Bureau of Public Health with five vacancies. Haddy said the vacancies are for entry level epidemiologists not a senior-level position CDC is recommending.
“(Someone) who would take the lead in environmental response,” according to Haddy. “We are researching our options and taking a look at this with the Division of Personnel as far as bringing on additional staff,” she said.
Some of Bureau of Public Health’s epidemiologists traveled to Virginia in March for a training session in environmental response. Dr. Haddy said the bureau would continue to look for opportunities for additional training.
The recommendations from the CDC include:
–Plan for an epidemiologic response to different types of disasters that might occur in West Virginia.
–Build up environmental epidemiology capacity within the agency.
–Join with other states working in the field of disaster epidemiology.
–Train epidemiologists in disaster epidemiology.