In Case of Ebola, U.S. Has Stockpile of Expired Sanitizer

A bottle of hand sanitizer s2its on the table in front of Interim Deputy Director of Science and Public Health Program Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a hearing before the Health Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce April 30, 2009 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the event Washington suffers an outbreak of Ebola, the U.S. government has almost 5,000 bottles of hand sanitizer waiting for emergency workers. The trouble is that 84 percent of the stockpile has expired.

An August audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that the U.S. prepared for a pandemic by purchasing supplies, like the hand sanitizer, or huge quantities of products with no clear purpose, such as 16 million surgical masks. The audit was released yesterday in advance of a House hearing today.

President Barack Obama has been criticized by lawmakers for the handling of the first domestic Ebola outbreak in Dallas, where the virus killed a Liberian national on Oct. 8 and two nurses at his hospital became infected. The hearing, by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, will examine the government’s preparations for an outbreak or attack using pathogens.

“There is an epidemic of fear, but not of Ebola, in the United States,” Nicole Lurie, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Health and Human Services Department, said in testimony prepared for the hearing. “We always can, and do, learn from experience, and we are making adjustments moving forward based on the first U.S. cases.”

Homeland Security

No Homeland Security officials are scheduled to testify. In a written response to the audit, the department said the inspector general “has not appropriately characterized a number of issues discussed in the report, resulting in a misrepresentation of the information and evidence that DHS program officials and subject matter experts provided to the auditors.”

The inspector general, John Roth, said in testimony prepared for the hearing that the department didn’t assess its needs before purchasing supplies and didn’t keep adequate records of its stockpiles. The department “did not readily know how much protective equipment it had on hand or where the equipment was being stored,” Roth said.

The department also can’t be certain that protective equipment on hand remains effective, according to Roth.

The items listed in the audit have been purchased by the government since 2006. The report doesn’t say whether any of the items were expired at the time the U.S. acquired them.

Other examples of questionable purchases Roth highlighted include “350,000 white coverall suits” stockpiled for the Washington region. The department has no documentation that the suits are necessary, he said.

Drug Stockpile

About 200,000 respirators stockpiled by the Transportation Safety Administration, a division of Homeland Security, are “beyond the 5-year usability guaranteed by the manufacturer,” Roth said.

The department also has no assurance that 300,000 doses of antiviral drugs, stockpiled to administer to government workers in the event of an outbreak, are adequate to “maintain critical operations during a pandemic,” he said.

In its response, the department said Roth had ignored preparations it made to keep an outbreak isolated and to minimize infections among emergency workers or the public, for example, by encouraging people to work from home.

Stockpiles of protective equipment, the department said, are “the final level of controls, and the least effective, from a business standpoint.”

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