HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY TOMMY THOMPSON, BIOTERRORISM

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson spreads his arms wide and gestures at the quiet, glowing computer terminals that fill a wood-paneled conference room just outside his sixth-floor office. The high-tech nerve center is Thompson's war room and, though it may be quiet now, it was humming during the height of the anthrax attacks last fall. And it will soon be fully staffed and on 24-hour alert again for the Super Bowl and the Olympics.

Americans may have turned their attention to other matters over the past few months, but Thompson has been focused on shoring up the nation's public-health system. On Friday, he will present Congress with plans for spending the extra $2.63 billion in emergency bioterrorism funds that lawmakers set aside late last year-that's an amount more than 10 times what Congress spent in 2001. Thompson not only sees the new spending as a way to protect the country against bioterror but also as a chance to bolster the public-health system to fight other problems like natural-disease outbreaks. "We have a golden opportunity to really strengthen, build, improve a state and local public-health system," says Thompson.

The bulk of the money will go to the states, which will develop their own plans for bioterror preparedness. As a former governor himself, Thompson wants to give the states maximum flexibility. "We want the governor to sign off so that he or she is committed as much as we are," Thompson says.

HHS will present the states with examples of public-health programs that really work. In Rhode Island, for instance, local officials have a "blast fax" program that can send faxes to keep in touch with every doctor in the state-a tactic that works even in low-tech areas that don't have Internet access. States might choose improvements like upgrading surveillance for infectious diseases, preparing hospitals to deal with a surge of casualties, improving communications connectivity between hospitals and city, local and state health officials. But Thompson will insist on some changes-he wants every state to have an onsite epidemiologist trained by the Centers for Disease Control.

Thompson will also target extra emergency funds for 122 metro areas-a plan that covers 80 percent of the U.S. population. And he'll use other funds to beef up the nation's emergency stockpile of antibiotics, vaccines and other drugs that might be needed in case of a bioterror attack. Thompson will spend nearly $3 billion in bioterror prevention in 2002-and that doesn't even include increases for 2003 that President Bush is expected to outline in next week's State of the Union address. Advocates have long fought to strengthen the nation's public-health system. "We've never been able to get the necessary political or financial resources available to do that," Thompson says. "We have it now." Now the nation can only hope that Thompson's preparations against bioterror won't ever be necessary.