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Anthrax worries some responders

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | November 1, 2001

"Mail safety has become an issue for people who handle goods in warehouses."

—Ben Curran

Even when anthrax isn't found, the worry about it lingers in the air.

Questions about whether the mail is safe have reached disaster response groups -- especially people who handle lots of donated goods.

"Mail safety has become an issue for people who handle goods in warehouses," said Ben Curran, an expert on donations management with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

People who work in Adventist Community Service (ACS) warehouses are now required to wear latex gloves and respirators, said spokesperson Larry Buckner. "We're requiring it of anybody who does any sorting whatsoever."

ACS is well known in the disaster response community for effectively managing material donations in the wake of disasters. "At one time these precautions were optional," said Buckner, but earlier this month became mandatory.

Local groups collecting goods for disaster survivors -- including survivors of disasters other than the Sept. 11 tragedy -- should also be cautious, added Buckner.

"These precautions need to extend to local groups collecting stuff to send to disasters, and precaution needs to be taken every time goods are handled."

ACS warehouses have had "a couple of scares that turned out not to be anthrax," he said.

Many disaster response groups reported that they are following the guidelines issued by the U.S. Postal Service, which include being aware of mail or packages from unknown people or organizations, and watching for packages with excessive tape or misspelled names.

"We are taking heed of the Postal Service guidelines. It's a real tough time -- and a dangerous time," said Stan Noffsinger, head of the Church of the Brethren Emergency Response Service Ministries.

For more than 40 years the distribution center at the Brethren Service Center at New Windsor, MD has been shipping goods to countries worldwide routinely as well as during times of crisis and disaster. Staff and trained volunteers there offer long distance hauling, warehousing and inventory control, picking and packing, shipping, purchasing, and clothing processing. The Church of the Brethren Emergency Response Service Ministries also helps care for disaster survivors by helping them rebuild their homes, by assessing damages, and by offering spiritual counseling and other ministries.

Even smaller-scale donations collectors are exercising caution. The Community Food Bank of New Jersey had an influx of donations immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks. "Most of our stuff came in before anthrax started to creep up," said spokesperson Cathy McCann.

Most donation drop-offs are scheduled so that workers know what to expect and who it's from, she said. "We know when a truck is coming."

Response groups are also busy trying to minister to people who are anxious about anthrax or about future terrorist attacks. In Washington, DC, members of an interfaith response group are planning to address this issue at their next meeting, said Shirley Norman, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster response facilitator. "This will have to be addressed. Some people are really going to start staying in their houses and refusing their mail. The economy is going to take even more of a dive than it already has."

Anthrax anxiety seems to have hit New York less than Washington, DC, said Joann Hale, a CWS disaster response facilitator who is helping to coordinate an interfaith response to the Sept. 11 attacks. "Most people we are hearing from are still going through a state of shock over what happened September 11," she said. "To them, anthrax is secondary because nothing could be more shocking that what has already happened."

Public anxiety over anthrax reached a new high Wednesday after a 61-year-old New York woman died of inhalation anthrax. It was the nation's fourth fatality from anthrax after a month of bio-terror. Because the woman was not a postal worker, a member of the media, or a government leader, officials are challenged in trying to pinpoint where she became infected.

The anthrax worries added to national jitters about additional terrorist attacks occurring on Halloween.

Many are anxious that either tainted letters are contaminating other mail, or the spores are sickening people by means other than the mail. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service reported Wednesday that inspectors believe there have been only three anthrax-tainted letters sent.

Postal inspectors have arrested some 16 people across the nation for anthrax hoaxes.

As of Wednesday, the number of confirmed anthrax cases was 17 nationwide since the outbreak began in early October. Ten people contracted the inhaled form, including the four people who died. The others have skin infections.

The number of people in the U.S. now on antibiotics because they were potentially exposed to anthrax numbered in the tens of thousands on Wednesday. Postal workers were the majority of those exposed, and postal equipment and procedures have come under close scrutiny over the past several weeks.

The postmaster general in Washington, DC reported that several billion dollars would be needed to safeguard the nation's mail. The postal service has begun sanitizing mail at Washington, DC's Brentwood facility, where two postal workers died from anthrax.

Members of Congress have not received mail since an anthrax-laced letter showed up on Capitol Hill earlier this month. Traces of anthrax have been found at the Supreme Court, State Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as in mail processing facilities for the CIA and the White House. On Wednesday, traces of anthrax also turned up in two mailbags at the U.S. embassy in Lithuania.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a notice Wednesday stating that the antibiotics doxycycline and penicillin are approved, along with Cipro, for treating all types of anthrax infections.

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