An incident in which a tuberculosis-infected man walked past U.S. border controls in May shows how poorly the country is defended against importing infectious diseases, according to a report released on Monday.
The report from the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security is one of three published on Monday that fault U.S. government preparations against pandemics and other potential disasters.
A second report, from the General Accountability Office, shows various U.S. agencies have still not fully worked out who would make decisions in case of a pandemic, while a study from the National Association of County and City Health Officials shows federal funding for disasters has shrunk.
The case of Andrew Speaker, who is being treated for multi-drug resistant TB, showed holes in border and aviation security as well as in public health, the Homeland Security Committee report said, adding that it was "handled ineffectively and inefficiently."
"The government has numerous plans and policies in place to secure our communities, but they just didn't follow the playbook," committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said in a statement.
"This certainly raises questions about our homeland security if the government had this much trouble countering TB, let alone countering terrorism."
The report found that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security all missed opportunities to stop Speaker, who had been cautioned not to travel.
"Attorneys at the Department of Homeland Security either failed to understand their authority, or were unable to convince other entities of their authority, to place Mr. Speaker on the 'no-fly' list of the Transportation Security Agency," the report reads.
Lack of proper testing
The GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, found that the federal government has not properly tested its pandemic preparations.
Experts around the world virtually all agree that a pandemic of some disease could come at any time, and say it could devastate trade, entire economies and industries, and kill tens of millions of people.
Most eyes are on the H5N1 avian influenza virus, which has killed 200 people out of 328 infected since 2003 and which has the potential to evolve into a form that people could easily transmit to one another.
The U.S. government has been waging a high-profile campaign for preparedness and released and updated a plan, but more rehearsal and clearer guidelines are needed, the GAO found.
Quick action could change the course of a pandemic, the GAO noted. "Most of these leadership roles and responsibilities have not been tested under pandemic scenarios, leaving unclear how all of these new and developing relationships would work," the GAO report reads.
And while the federal plan stresses local preparedness, federal funding to local health departments for emergency preparedness in general fell by 20 percent last year, the National Association of County and City Health Officials report found.
NACCHO said federal funding cuts had forced 28 percent of local health departments to reduce how much time their staff spent on preparedness, and 40 percent had delayed or canceled acquisition of equipment and supplies.