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How safe are we, really?

NBC's Chip Reid looks at the strides made in protecting our elected officials — but finds gaps still remain for the public.

On Capitol Hill Tuesday, the ricin scare set nerves on edge — two more suspicious packages turned out to be false alarms.  Tours were canceled, leaving Capitol corridors empty, and with Senate office buildings closed, Sen. Charles Schumer’s staff squeezed into his Capitol Hill home, trying to take the danger in stride.  “The Capitol’s always a target,” said Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., whose office received an anthrax letter two years ago, says intensive security procedures have made the Capitol a much safer place: “I think we are light years ahead of where we were back then.”

Most here agree that the people’s representatives are safer now than they were two years ago — but what about the people?

Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee recently concluded that significant gaps still remain in protecting the public from biological or chemical attack and that “The administration has not developed a comprehensive, coherent plan for bio-defense.”

“Our nation is dangerously unprepared to deal with the threat of bioterrorism,” according to Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas.

Administration officials say they’re wrong.  Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said: “I don’t think we are vulnerable as a lot of people think.  I would say every day we’re getting stronger and better.”

But a non-profit group called the Trust for America’s Health says states play a vital role in responding to attacks, and many are woefully underprepared.  For example, the group’s report says only two states, Florida and Illinois, are ready for statewide distribution of emergency vaccinations.

“It is surprising, and it is in fact a little horrifying, because how many wake-up calls is it going to take?” said Shelley Hearne of Trust for America’s Health.

One big problem, she says, is that states had planned to rely on National Guard troops — but many are now fighting the war in Iraq.