Homeland Security Money and Swine Flu Preparedness

Published on
April 29, 2009

State, local and national agencies were supposed to be prepared for this swine flu outbreak. After September 11th, money started flowing to law enforcement agencies and public health departments to help them gear up specifically for a chemical or biological threat.

So how was that money spent?

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, my colleague here at Center for Health Journalism Digital, Barbara Feder Ostrov, wrote a great piece for the San Jose Mercury News that detailed how money in the San Jose area was being spent.

She noted that some of the spending had been criticized as "toys for boys," including four Segway scooters purchased for the Santa Clara County bomb squad. (These will work well in any situation where there is a smooth, flat, unobstructed pathway from the van to the bomb.)

The county also bought pricey sonar equipment despite having a tiny coastline. My paper, the Los Angeles Times, reported in March 2006 that Los Angeles County spent roughly $2 million in bioterrorism grant money on public relations, trinkets and other questionable initiatives.

CBS News reported that oil companies were receiving some of the money. Researchers with the American Enterprise Institute summed up the scope of the issue in an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here are some ideas for checking out how Homeland Security and bioterrorism grants have been spent in your community, and whether they have helped public health agencies prepare for the current swine flu outbreak.

1. Start with the Department of Homeland Security. Go to the agency's map of grants. You can click on a state and see a compilation of how much money was given in the past fiscal year to each agency in that state. It also gives you a contact person for the state.

2. Go to that person and to the individual cities, counties or other agencies that received funding and ask them for a detailed accounting of how much money they have received and how they have spent it. Is any of the money helpful for swine flu surveillance or treatment? For example, did a public health lab get new testing equipment?

3. You might run into some road blocks, as Congressional Quarterly did in 2005. That can become part of the story, too.

Happy hunting!