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Loudoun May Get Bioterrorism Epidemiologist

Loudoun’s health director expects the county to receive one of the 35 epidemiologists the state plans to hire for fighting bioterrorism.

“That will allow our staff to concentrate more on our patients, and this person to do more surveillance than we are [doing] at this time,” said David Goodfriend, district health director for the county’s Department of Health.

The Virginia Department of Health applied for two federal grants to fund 130 bioterrorism positions. The positions include 35 epidemiologists and 35 bioterrorism coordinators, along with five separate regional teams for the state's five health regions.

"It's not only for bioterrorism but for public health emergencies, including things like disease outbreaks," said Nancy Winter, spokesperson for the state health department. "There will be more people investigating the causes of diseases in various communities. You will have more disease investigators or detectives."

The state is expected to disperse the epidemiologist positions among the 35 health districts in the state, including the one in Loudoun, as early as this summer, Winter said.

With $20.7 million in grants and another $1.8 million in state funding, the health department will have $22 million to address bioterrorism and disease outbreak in the state. Another $1.9 million in federal grant funding will be provided for hospital preparedness, Winter said.

THE EPIDEMIOLOGIST'S position will cover work currently spread among staff at Loudoun's health department. The epidemiologist, who has specialized skills in disease surveillance, will be assigned to track diseases in the county, identify any unusual diseases that could be related to bioterrorism and detect bioterrorism in the early stages. To do this, the epidemiologist will work with physicians, emergency responders and first responders, and the hospital’s emergency department.

"Given the potential threats, this will be a welcome addition to the health department and to Loudoun County," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (R-At Large), referring to the county's proximity to Washington, D.C.

The epidemiologist may use the health department’s traditional methods of surveillance, including making physician visits, encouraging physicians to report diseases and working with hospitals to identify emergency room patients with unusual signs of sickness. The specific tracking methods have not been identified.

“The best way to keep a disease from spreading … is to diagnose it early,” Goodfriend said, adding that the epidemiologist may identify other diseases not linked to bioterrorism which “do affect our community.”

The epidemiologist’s specific duties will be determined if the position is funded, Goodfriend said. The epidemiologist will work under the direction of Goodfriend and Gloria Collins, assistant director for community health services.