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Army wants to strengthen Ft. Detrick 'biosurety rules'

March 16, 2004|by DAVID DISHNEAU

FREDERICK, Md. - The stainless steel door to the world's only biological containment patient-care suite bangs as loudly as a prison gate - only nobody enters involuntarily.

Because of medical privacy laws, managers of the Army biodefense research program at Fort Detrick rely on laboratory workers to self-report accidents like the one that recently put an Ebola researcher in "the slammer" for 21 days of observation.

Workers' privacy could be reduced, though, by new "biosurety" rules the Army is developing for enhanced lab security, Col. Erik A. Henchal, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases, said Monday.

In addition to ensuring that lab workers are technically qualified to work with the world's deadliest pathogens, Henchal said the Army may require proof that they also are "medically qualified." That could include providing medical information, such as whether one's immune system is suppressed, as well as submitting to psychological evaluations and drug tests, Henchal said.

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Currently, "employees can choose not to tell us about their conditions," Henchal said. He said his agency is seeking guidance from the Army on how to conduct "more active surveillance" of workers.

"How do we assess people? How do we qualify people medically to work with select agents?" he said.

The Army should have those questions answered, and the policy in place, by the end of the year, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't oppose asking government workers for medical records or information that is reasonably related to their job responsibilities, Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's program on technology and liberty said. However, he said not all psychological tests are reliable, and medical information should not be used to punish a person.

"What would concern me is the question of whether or not this information is - A - in fact relevant to their duties and - B - reliable itself and - C - that there are adequate protections for how this information will be used," Steinhardt said.

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