DHS to Hospitals: No Specific Terrorist Threat

June 13, 2005
Despite reports, DHS says there have been no threats, but still recommends standard security improvements

The California Department of Health Services reassured hospitals that they were not a potential target of a possible terror attack on Thursday, but it also encouraged heightened security.

In letters faxed overnight Wednesday to 440 hospitals statewide, DHS said: "We have confirmed that there is no information regarding any specific or defined threat against hospitals."

State health officials said they faxed the letters to counter some media reports of an affidavit in the Lodi terror probe that named hospitals as "potential targets for attack."

The DHS letters also list "suggested protective measures" to tighten security. Many of the precautions -- identification badges for visitors, inspecting packages, and restricting access to lab supplies and radiological material -- became standard procedure after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Since 9/11, we have known hospitals could be a potential target of terrorism," said Loni Howard, emergency preparedness coordinator at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento.

This spring, hospitals stepped up security after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that individuals posing as health inspectors had entered hospitals in Boston, Los Angeles and Detroit and tried to collect confidential records.

On Thursday, California hospitals received a homeland security bulletin reminding them of the fake inspectors and advising them to take precautions identical to those faxed out by California health officials.

The bulletin says no "specific and credible threat exists of an al-Qaida-associated terrorist attack against hospital facilities." It also says "U.S. hospitals offer easy public access and would be recognized by terrorist planners as easy, accessible targets."

At Lodi Memorial Hospital, the statements dismissing earlier reports of a possible attack against hospitals soothed nerves, said Carol Farron, the hospital's community development director.

"Our major concern here since the arrests Tuesday has been trying to dispel the fear that is struck in the hearts of people in this community that there were terrorists living here who were targeting hospitals," Farron said.

Lodi Memorial, the lone hospital in town, doubled its security detail. "Not because we are overly concerned about terrorism, but because we wanted to protect our patients and staff from the media who swarmed all over the hospital," Farron said.

Though government agencies say the terror threat to hospitals did not exist, many hospital officials see another potential danger that persists -- poor communication between federal law enforcement officials and the hospitals and health agencies that would aid the public in the aftermath of an attack.

"Hospitals take security very seriously, and they do regular training in disaster response. If they don't know there is a potential terror threat, they don't know to have response teams in place," said Jan Emerson, a spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association.

Emerson said it's possible there was no credible threat in Lodi that needed to be communicated. She also said there have been past cases when hospitals were not told of known threats.

"Once, there was an alert put out that hospitals in the Bay Area were potentially a target of some kind of terrorist act. We didn't know which hospitals or what we were supposed to do," she said.

Communication of potential terror risks varies, said health and law enforcement officials. As a general rule, federal authorities will notify local law enforcement or state health officials when a threat involves hospitals or might require medical response.

State health officials and local law enforcement agencies have discretion to contact hospitals or local health departments.

The system works, said Victor Turner, bureau chief of the Los Angeles County Office of Public Safety. Turner said he routinely receives terror alerts from federal law enforcement and passes information on to county hospital and public health officials.

"We didn't hear anything about this specific Lodi case (before the arrests), but we have heard generally that there has been an increased threat to hospitals and public health facilities," Turner said. "Even when we did hear about Lodi, we didn't do anything different with security."