The communication breakdowns that have characterized the federal, state and local response to the unintended release of a dangerous bacterium at the Tulane National Primate Research Center seemed to continue this week, with state officials complaining about a lack of support from federal agencies.
“This is a federal issue,” said Kevin Davis, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the state agency charged with managing the state’s response to the crisis. “We need them to respond to our requests.”
Specifically, Davis was upset with the Environmental Protection Agency, from which he had requested assistance in coordinating short- and long-term environmental monitoring plans and leading the multiple-agency response to the release. He also had asked the EPA to attend a public meeting Tuesday to discuss the incident.
Davis made his request in a March 13 letter to EPA’s regional administrator in Dallas. Carl Edlund, of the EPA, responded in a letter dated March 20.
“On March 13,” Edlund wrote, “the (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) announced that it found no evidence to date to suggest the organism in question was released into the surrounding environment and completed its investigation of the incident. Since the EPA was providing support to the CDC, we conclude that further assistance is not needed.”
The letter directed Davis to contact the CDC if he wished to discuss the matter further.
Davis said Friday that he had been contacted by the EPA late Thursday and the agency had “re-engaged” with the state. But as yet, he said, no one from the EPA had said he plans to attend the public meeting Tuesday. An EPA spokesman did not return an email inquiring whether anyone from the EPA plans to attend the meeting.
This isn’t the first time that officials have criticized a lack of communication among the so-called “unified command,” the unwieldy group of local, state and federal officials, agencies and Tulane University representatives managing the response to the escape of the Burkholderia pseudomallei bacterium.
St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister has complained at times that Tulane has not provided information to local officials in a timely manner, and Tulane officials responded that they had provided the information to the CDC, one member of the unified command. But that information had not been passed on to other agencies, officials said.
One problem is the fact there are at least three federal agencies with overlapping concerns and jurisdictions, several state agencies and local officials with a vested interest in the release and the ensuing investigation and remediation efforts.
The bigger problem, according to Davis, is that there is no coordinating federal authority, unlike in a hurricane, when the Stafford Act is invoked and FEMA takes over managing the federal response. The lack of clear control can cause “some issues,” he said.
The communication breakdown comes even as the CDC is in the midst of testing samples from some 840 rhesus macaque monkeys that may have been exposed to bacterium that escaped from a lab and infected three monkeys, each of which was euthanized. So far, 549 macaques have been tested, and officials have been able to rule out two monkeys earlier thought to have been exposed but not infected, CDC spokesman Jason McDonald said. That leaves the number of confirmed asymptomatic exposures at three.
But seven other monkeys are “under investigation,” meaning tests indicate they may have been exposed. Of those, one was in the clinic — the presumed center of the infections — after it had been decontaminated, McDonald said. Preliminary tests on that monkey indicated antibodies in its system that may have been caused by exposure to Burkholderia, but further tests will be needed before the result can be confirmed, he said.
The crisis began when two monkeys were infected in November with the bacterium, which causes the disease melioidosis.
Burkholderia pseudomallei is classified by the federal government as a “select agent,” or a pathogen that can pose a grave threat to people, animal or plant health. It is native to southeast Asia and northern Australia, where it lives in soil and water.
Melioidosis can be deadly, but it is treatable with antibiotics if properly diagnosed.
On March 13, the CDC issued a statement saying the bacterium most likely escaped what was supposed to be a highly secured lab at the Tulane center on clothing, and it blamed employees for either neglecting to wear the proper gear when working in the lab or wearing it incorrectly.
After the first two monkeys’ infections became known, the CDC ordered Tulane to suspend all work with select agents. That ban will remain in effect until Tulane has a remediation plan approved and completes the necessary steps, including new policies and retraining staff, to have the suspension lifted. CDC officials will make spot visits to the facility during that remediation period.
More than three dozen tests on the soil and water around the center’s monkey breeding colony, which lies across the road from the main lab complex, have so far proved negative for the bacterium, a Tulane spokesman said.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture continue their investigation into where the bacterium may have spread, but so far they have found no evidence that it has made its way from the lab into the colony, a spokeswoman said. Nevertheless, the department will continue to work with state and local partners on plans for wildlife testing and educating local veterinarians and laboratories on what to look for in case the bacterium infects another animal, she said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III, on Twitter, @faimon.