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News Briefs

Thompson Hands Out Bioterrorism Funds


In a ceremony rife with symbolism, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson Thursday presented millions of dollars in bioterrorism preparedness funds to New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Including a nominal payment made in January, the city and state have received $60 million this year for bioterrorism preparedness and response.

Though the announcement was made in New York, HHS has approved nearly $1 billion worth of bioterrorism grants to 48 states. Montana, Utah and the District of Columbia have not yet provided adequate plans for spending the federal dollars, Thompson said.

“This marks the largest one-time investment in our nation’s public health system ever,” Thompson said. “We’ve never really invested in our local and state health departments like we should have, and now we need to do so.”

Thompson chose St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan, a primary responder on Sept. 11, as the site for his announcement. Flanked by local emergency responders and medical personnel, Thompson stood in front of the Wall of Remembrance, a spot on the outside of the hospital’s emergency room covered with the fading photos and memories of those who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center.

Strategy to Contain Smallpox Challenged By Federal Experts


The federal government’s key strategy would not work if Manhattan were attacked by terrorists armed with the smallpox virus, and hospitals throughout the city and extending into Long Island would be overwhelmed by panic, federal experts were told Thursday.

That scenario of uncertainty and helter-skelter reaction was painted by health care professionals and only a handful of private citizens who attended an open forum in Manhattan. Federal health officials sought public opinion regarding the United States’ smallpox vaccine supply - and what response to pursue in the event of an attack.

Government defense officials say the likelihood of such an attack is considered remote. Nevertheless, stockpiling the vaccine is part of an overall readiness plan.

For months the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has supported the ring vaccination scenario as its key response strategy if smallpox were used in a biological attack. The plan calls for vaccinating infected people and their contacts. First-responders such as emergency medical workers and hospital emergency room physicians and nurses would have been vaccinated in advance of any attack under this plan. Police and fire units are also included for pre-attack vaccination in some scenarios, health officials say. The plan, government officials say, could help stave off mass casualties from the highly contagious and deadly disease.

House Approves Estate Tax Ban


The Republican-led House on Thursday approved President Bush’s proposal to permanently repeal the estate tax, setting the stage for a much tougher fight on the issue in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The bill, a top goal of the politically powerful farm lobby, would extend the estate tax repeal that was approved last year as part of Bush’s sweeping $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut plan. Under that law, the estate tax gradually decreases and then ends in 2010. But on Jan. 1, 2011, the tax would return to its 2001 rates, under which the largest estates would face a 55 percent levy.

Senate Democratic leaders oppose the push to permanently repeal the tax, saying the government cannot afford expanded tax cuts at a time when budget deficits have returned and are growing.

Still, the political momentum behind the bill is strong enough that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has agreed to hold a vote on it later this month.

Daschle believes he has the votes to block the bill. But the issue poses a tricky political choice for the many Democrats up for reelection this year, especially those from the Farm Belt. Farm and business groups plan a vigorous lobbying campaign on the bill’s behalf among senators, including running political advertisements in states with competitive Senate campaigns this fall.

Bloomberg Taking Control Of New York City’s Schools


In a major political victory, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reached an agreement with state legislators Thursday that gives him virtually complete control over the nation’s largest public school system.

Bloomberg, a Republican who had made education reform the priority of his first six months in office, announced that he and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had reached an “understanding” that must be approved by the Legislature and New York Gov. George Pataki before taking effect.

Under the plan, which has been the subject of intense negotiations, the mayor would have full power to hire and fire the school chancellor. The city’s eight-member board of education would be replaced with a 13-member advisory panel.

Just as important, the sweeping revision would allow Bloomberg to appoint the school system’s 32 district superintendents and would abolish New York’s 32 community school boards by next June. In return for these concessions, the mayor would agree to avoid making crippling budget cuts in public schools unless the city were to face an economic catastrophe.

“There is an understanding between the mayor and myself, and we’ve spoken to both the governor and (state Senate leader) Joseph Bruno about that understanding,” said Silver, a Democrat from Queens who had the power to approve or scuttle the deal.