On October 4, 2001, a state public health laboratory in Florida confirmed the first case in what became known as the “anthrax attacks,” and issued an alert to the public health community. Within days, members of the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) were inundated with suspect samples of every imaginable type. Donuts, packages, clothing—even a body—arrived for analysis. Ultimately, the public health laboratory members of the LRN handled 70% of the anthrax testing, conducting over a million tests on 125,000 samples to distinguish between real and apparent threats, thus calming a frightened public. Laboratory scientists worked grueling hours to conduct analyses that would drive decisions by medical practitioners, law enforcement and public health officials. Public health laboratories were also on the front line testing environmental samples from United States Postal Service (USPS) facilities for Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax.
In the years following 2001, significant federal and state investment in public health preparedness strengthened laboratory capability and capacity to respond to health threats, both man-made or naturally occurring. This investment proved invaluable in responding to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and other natural disasters. It also readied public health laboratories to respond to the nationwide outbreak of 2009 H1N1 influenza and to the latest emerging diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
Federal and state support for public health preparedness has declined significantly since the beginning of the economic recession in 2009. It is unclear how laboratory response capability will be maintained in the future.