- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson yesterday announced measures to improve the public health response to the recent anthrax attacks and to bioterrorism in the future, saying that actions will go forward regardless of scientific uncertainties.
"We are taking aggressive steps to ensure that our postal system is safe, that our government can function without a break, and that America has all the resources necessary to handle anything the terrorists want to throw at us," Mr. Thompson said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, meeting in the District.
"We have good science, but it is also an evolving science," he said. "We're going to act quickly, and, if need be, let the science catch up to our action."
The secretary's comments were in response to criticism that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency within his department, has received this week for failing to recognize that postal workers were at risk for anthrax infection from letters sent through the mail.
"Remember, we have never had cases of anthrax attacks in this manner before. It's a new challenge that we are all facing as a country," said Mr. Thompson.
In multiple appearances on the TV networks' morning talk shows yesterday, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher bluntly admitted that federal officials erred in not responding more aggressively to anthrax-tainted mail in the nation's capital.
"We were wrong. We were wrong. The assumption had been that people [involved in processing or handling unopened envelopes containing anthrax] could not be exposed," Dr. Satcher said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
On NBC's "Today" show, he said: "We were wrong. The fact is we haven't been there before, and we're learning."
After an anthrax-laced letter arrived in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, on Oct. 15, and a white powdery substance inside spilled out, thousands of workers on Capitol Hill were screened for anthrax, and many were immediately put on antibiotics.
That was done on the recommendation of the CDC.
But the federal agency initially did not advise screening and treatment of postal workers, even those employed at the facility that processes mail sent to Congress, believing anthrax inside a sealed envelope would not cause them any problem.
"Based on what we knew, we would not have had a reason to expect that there was anthrax in that environment. We had never had a case before," Dr. Satcher said on ABC.
Investigators had begun tracing the Daschle letter backward but stopped when they found no evidence of the anthrax bacteria at a congressional mail-intake facility.
But their views changed drastically by Sunday, when a Brentwood postal worker was diagnosed as having inhalation anthrax, the most serious form of the disease, and on Monday, when it was disclosed two Brentwood employees had died of that disease.
In his address to the mayors, Mr. Thompson enumerated the efforts that are being made to track down the source of anthrax-laced letters that were sent to Mr. Daschle, the three major television networks, a Florida tabloid publishing firm, and the New York Post, and the changes that have been implemented or proposed to confront the anthrax public health threat.
"They have used the best science to follow the trail of these letters. And they have used the best science to assess the risk of anthrax exposure to employees, both at the workplaces where the letters were received and at the postal facilities through which the letters passed," said Mr. Thompson.
"These efforts were evident in the Florida and New York cases where the letters were identified; those who may have been exposed were tested and treated," he said.
Mr. Thompson did not mention the Washington cases.
Several government officials yesterday identified new efforts and changes in procedures that are under way or planned for government responses to bioterrorism threats.
Mr. Thompson and Helge H. Wehmeier, president and CEO of the Bayer Corp., announced an agreement for the federal purchase of 100 million tablets of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, at a price of 95 cents per tablet. That price for the anthrax treatment is down from the usual discounted price of $1.77 per tablet that the federal government pays.
Postmaster General John F. "Jack" Potter announced that postal workers who process mail will be outfitted with gloves and breathing masks. Use will be optional.
Mr. Potter also said the Postal Service intends to buy new bacteria-killing radiation devices. The agency is preparing to ask Congress for $625 million to buy more safety equipment, according to news reports yesterday.
Deborah Willhite, a senior vice president of the Postal Service, said the agency also is urging people to wash their hands after handling mail every day.
In an interview with the Associated Press, she said, "We have no reason to believe that there would be anything on them, but what's the problem with clean hands?"
Mr. Thompson said the CDC "will immediately move in at any and all postal facilities that might have handled a piece of mail, once anthrax is determined to be present," and "we will make medicine available immediately to those employees who may have been at risk of exposure."
Mr. Thompson said he is adding four 50-ton "push packs" to the eight that are currently strategically located at secret sites throughout the nation. Push packs contain vaccines, antibiotics, intravenous drips, oxygen masks, and dozens of other medical supplies and are shipped to crisis areas within 12 hours of a disaster. The one that went to New York on Sept. 11 arrived in seven hours.
The HHS secretary announced the "immediate release" of $3 million through the CDC to supplement public health grants to the District and other areas that have been hit by anthrax. He said the money will be used to "accelerate active surveillance, detection and confirmation of anthrax cases."
He provided a breakdown of how additional funding sought by the president to address the anthrax scare at the state and local levels will be used. He said "substantial funding" will be provided for the CDC's rapid response and advanced technology labs and their epidemiologists.
Mr. Thompson said he also wants to provide each state health department lab with a graduate of the CDC Epidemiology Intelligence Service and to hire 410 new FDA inspectors to ensure that the food supply is not contaminated with biochemicals or other agents.


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