Top government officials implored health-care workers Thursday to volunteer for smallpox vaccinations, telling them that the threat of a bioterrorist attack is real, that it is their public duty to be prepared and that the government will compensate them for any injuries.
"This is an unprecedented time in our history," said Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, referring to the threat of terrorist attacks against the United States and the prospect of a U.S. war against Iraq. "Now more than ever, we really need to scale up and speed up this vaccination program."
Gerberding and other officials spoke at a news conference to formally announce the Bush administration's proposed compensation fund for health-care workers injured by the vaccine.
The lack of guaranteed compensation for people injured by the vaccine has been a primary factor in the program's slow start.
Almost five weeks into a program designed to vaccinate 450,000 front-line health-care workers in a month and then 10 million "first responders" by spring or summer, just 12,690 civilian response-team members have been inoculated.
Tennessee had vaccinated 2,020 workers through Feb. 28, more than any other state. But there had been only 33 vaccinations in New York City, 61 in Los Angeles County and 18 in Chicago, the nation's three largest metropolitan areas.
The proposed smallpox compensation fund would pay $262,100 to public-health and response-team workers killed or totally disabled as a result of the vaccine. It would also compensate workers for some lost wages and medical expenses not covered by insurance.
The plan needs congressional approval, but it would cover health-care workers vaccinated before its enactment.
"People should certainly sign up, because this legislation is going to pass," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).
Mary C. Selecky, secretary of the Washington state department of health and president of the Assn. of State and Territorial Health Officials, called the proposal "an important step forward."
But her group also expressed support for legislation introduced by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). Its provisions include a death benefit of $850,000, payments for noneconomic damages and aid to states to help them implement the program.
The CDC's most recent vaccine-injury summary reported 46 nonserious reactions to the vaccine and four serious reactions. The serious cases included a 26-year-old woman who had shared a bed with a man inoculated in the Pentagon's vaccination program.
Because the man had not kept his vaccination site covered, the woman contracted an eye infection and was twice hospitalized.