Flunking the anthrax test

As bad news continues to pile up, Washington can't seem to get its act together.

Published October 24, 2001 10:33PM (EDT)

Under pressure to reassure the public that the government has its act together, government officials appeared before the press, the public and Congress Tuesday in an effort to dampen serious questions about the nation's preparedness. With bad news coming in by the hour -- two D.C. postal workers' deaths definitely anthrax-related, more postal workers possibly infected by anthrax, anthrax detected at an off-site White House mail-opening machine -- the sense of unease inherent in the very subject being discussed, deadly death spores, continued.

And all the while, contradictions and glaring problems in the domestic front in the war on terrorism continued to pop up -- perhaps best illustrated when Mr. Reassurance, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, testified at a House subcommittee hearing that had to be held in his own department building, since U.S. House office buildings are still being tested for the presence of anthrax.

And President Bush, answering questions from reporters during a photo op with members of Congress, denied having any anthrax-related illness -- but then refused to answer questions about whether or not he had been tested. Three times he was asked if he had been tested for anthrax; all three times he responded by saying, "I don't have anthrax." The simple response was clearly an attempt at swaggering command, but in the end it left the question ominously unanswered.

Indeed, as the twin demands of more security precautions and reassurance are fast becoming enemies, the only things government officials seemed able to agree on were: Anthrax was mailed, and anthrax is killing people. But other matters are up for debate -- such as how lethal the type of anthrax being mailed is, or what the treatment protocol should be.

High-ranking government officials continued to contradict one another on whether the anthrax sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was "weapons-grade." Law enforcement officials were forced to admit that they still had few, if any, leads on who was sending the deadly deliveries. The White House announced that the presence of anthrax had been detected at an off-campus White House postal facility, but said that there was no need for any new testing of the White House itself for the presence of anthrax, since the White House already irradiates its mail.

And everything was tarred by what seemed like an immense failure in public health, as officials tried to address -- while not expressly apologizing for -- an apparently grave misjudgment made last week by officials at the Centers for Disease Control. CDC officials had apparently made a mistake about the potency of the anthrax letter sent to Daschle and about whether the postal employees who came in contact with it should have had the same testing congressional employees underwent.

"Despite the events of recent days, every American must and should continue to live their lives -- working, spending time with family, having a meal out, or shopping at the local mall -- and they should be able to do that with confidence," HHS Secretary Thompson insisted. He said that the government on every level was "ready to respond to biological warfare and bioterrorism quickly and effectively throughout the country."

But Thompson's optimism is not universally shared. His past inclination toward silver linings has proven wrong -- such as on Oct. 4, when he speculated that American Media Inc. photo editor Bob Stevens, the first post-9/11 American to die of anthrax inhalation, might have contracted the disease after "he drank water out of a stream when he was traveling to North Carolina."

On Tuesday, members of the House, who were criticized last week for adjourning early in the wake of the anthrax letter, were often the ones at the forefront of criticizing the federal government.

"We seem medically unprepared to deter or defend against attacks using agents anthrax and smallpox, long considered likely terrorist or biological warfare weapons," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's national security, veterans affairs and international relations subcommittee, before which Thompson testified.

Almost two years ago, Shays said, his subcommittee had pointed out a glaring weakness in the Department of Defense's anthrax vaccine immunization program, and had issued recommendations that were not followed. Shays' subcommittee judged that the Department of Defense's anthrax vaccination program was "overly dependent" upon one company that produced what Shays deemed an outdated "logistically cumbersome medical technology," and recommended that the department research other anthrax vaccine technologies.

Shays' comments now seem less Chicken Little-ish than they did two years ago. And his cry that the country was unprepared for a biological, chemical or nuclear terrorist attack sounds downright prescient, as government officials responded with less than 100 percent efficiency and a troubling uncertainty.

For that reason, Thompson pledged a more aggressive posture by the government in any future anthrax incidents. "We're going to err on the side of caution in making sure people are protected," Thompson promised. If there are any future cases of anthrax letters, Thompson promised that the CDC and other health officials "will immediately move in ... on all postal facilities through which that letter might have passed."

But just a few hours later, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer indicated that there wouldn't necessarily be any change in health protocols. "With each case, the government takes a look at every step that was taken to try to be as helpful as possible to move as quickly as possible," he said. "The protocols are going to depend on the evaluations made on the ground by the relevant officials. And every incident will have its own set of protocols."

Questions about government health officials' judgments were raised since Daschle's office received its anthrax letter on Monday, Oct. 15, but it wasn't until two days later that the Brentwood mail facility was tested for the presence of anthrax. And it wasn't until the following Sunday that postal employees were called in for medical testing.

Deborah Willhite, senior vice president of the U.S. Postal Service, said that the delay was because "we followed the advice of the CDC and other public health officials, who advised us that ... it was not necessary to test our workers," she said. The Brentwood facility itself hadn't been tested until two days after the discovery of the Daschle letter because "we had been advised that there was no immediate need for us to do any testing," Willhite said.

That prognosis was changed on Sunday after health officials were notified that two postal workers had been hospitalized with inhalation anthrax. On Tuesday, Anthony Williams, mayor of Washington, confirmed that two additional postal employees -- Joseph P. Curseen, 47, and Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55 -- had in fact died as a result of anthrax inhalation. The post office announced that all 3,400 postal employees in the D.C. area would begin taking antibiotics -- as would others who had been in certain postal facilities, including Mayor Williams and John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted." New Jersey Health Commissioner George DiFerdinando also announced on Tuesday that a New Jersey postal worker had contracted inhalation anthrax.

Inhalation anthrax is a much more serious infection than the cutaneous, or "skin," anthrax infecting assistants to NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather, two employees of American Media Inc. and the baby of an ABC News producer. If treated, cutaneous anthrax has a high rate of being cured; inhalation anthrax kills more than 90 percent of those infected (if treatment with antibiotics has not begun before symptoms appear).

Local health officials seemed entirely unprepared to even look for anthrax. At 2 a.m. Sunday, Curseen -- who had fainted in church on Saturday -- went to the emergency room at Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton, Md., complaining about nausea, stomach cramps and "flu-like symptoms." Hospital physicians performed blood tests and X-rays on him but they could find nothing. Curseen was given an antacid and sent home. At 5:45 a.m. Monday he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. This time he had a clear infection in his lungs. He died at 11:30 a.m. Monday morning.

Concerns in the past were just about cutaneous anthrax, Dr. Ivan Walks, director of the District of Columbia Health Department, explained on Monday. "This is a different day," he said.

CDC representative Mitch Cohen repeated later that day: "This is really a new phenomena. At first, we had no evidence that any of the mail handlers were at risk, so this phenomena of first having skin disease in New Jersey and now having inhalational disease is an evolution." Cohen said that "how it is actually occurring isn't clear."

But there was reason long before the end of last week to suspect that this anthrax was potent, and maybe different from that sent to Brokaw. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had characterized the anthrax letter sent to Daschle as "unlike anything that we've seen up to this point" and "sophisticated ... It was almost an aerosol type of situation on a powder. When they opened the envelope, this thing sent out a plume."

And though some in the Senate disputed this account, there was no disputing the initial medical evidence that suggested this anthrax was unlike anything seen up to this point. Testing that Monday, Oct. 15, revealed that those exposed to the anthrax were not just those in the immediate vicinity of the mail room on the 6th floor of the Hart Senate Office Building. Daschle staffers on the 5th floor of his office suite had been exposed, as had three staffers for Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., who were in the office next door.

At a Tuesday Senate hearing on bioterrorism, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, lashed out at the CDC. "I am very concerned about what CDC is doing and how they are operating," Harkin said. "Maybe I'm wrong, but it just seems to me that something broke down here. People are getting sick and people are dying."

But Fleischer insisted that President Bush wasn't focused on any shortcomings in the public health apparatus. "The president believes that the cause of death was not the treatment made by the federal government or the local officials, or anybody else, that the cause of deaths was the attack that was made on our nation as a result of people mailing anthrax through the mail," Fleischer said.

Bush himself later added to this rah-rah, saying at his photo op that "our healthcare workers are working around the clock to help people in need and I will tell you that I think not only are they doing a good job, I think they probably saved a lot of lives by their quick action."

Health officials argued that they had been under the impression that the worst-case scenario was the highly treatable cutaneous anthrax. Evidence of the greater lethality of the anthrax sent to Daschle brought credibility to the news announced last week by Daschle and House Speaker Hastert that the anthrax was "weapons-grade," meaning that it had been significantly, purposefully refined to be more easily inhaled.

But then on Friday, the new director of the Office of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, said that "the tests have shown that these strains have not been 'weaponized.'"

On Tuesday morning, after meeting at the White House, Gephardt disputed Ridge, saying that "this is weapons-grade material." When asked about the contradiction, the minority leader said that "we've got to stop parsing words and trying to be anything other than accurate about what this is. This is highly sophisticated material. It is small in size, and it aerosolizes."

"The words are not particularly helpful," Gephardt said. "Obviously this stuff gets in the air and stays in the air. ... You can call it anything you want to call it. This is not safe stuff."

And the sender, or senders, of the material has yet to be determined. Officials can't even decide how far along the investigation has proceeded. On Friday, Ridge announced that "the FBI has been able to identify the site where the letters were mailed," but law enforcement officials have since contradicted that.

Asked about this on Monday, Ridge deferred to Chief Postal Inspector Ken Weaver who would only say that "that is all part of the investigation. We are looking at every possible detail on that route, including any possible boxes. But all I can tell you at this point, that is part of the ongoing investigation."

But there seemed to have been few advances in the anthrax investigation, and achievements in the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks were relatively modest. Appearing at a briefing with Otto Schily, the interior minister of Germany, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the German government had issued arrest warrants for three individuals -- Said Bahaji, Ramsi Binalshibh and Zakariya Essabar -- known to have associated in Germany with three of the Sept. 11 terrorists. Ashcroft said, "If we knew where they were, I think we'd go get them."

The anthrax investigation seemed to have reaped an even smaller crop. The main news there came when Ashcroft announced that the Justice Department would be releasing copies of the anthrax letterssent to Daschle, Brokaw and the New York Post, to maybe jar the memory of someone in the general public.

The letter to Brokaw, and the letter to the New York Post, both postmarked Sept. 18 in Trenton, N.J., also both read: "09-11-01 This is next. Take penacilin [sic] now. Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great."

The letter to Daschle, postmarked Oct. 9 in Trenton, read: "09-11-01 You can not stop us. We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great."

Ashcroft said that investigators know more than they knew a week ago, but their new information didn't seem like much. "We are not able to rule out an association with the terrorist acts of September the 11th," he said, "but neither are we able to draw a conclusive link at this time in that respect." Asked if the former residences of the hijackers had been tested for the presence of anthrax, Ashcroft wouldn't comment.

Members of the House Governmental Reform subcommittee chaired by Shays, meanwhile, questioned Thompson on potential areas of future vulnerability. Thompson said that the U.S. government had "15.4 million dosages of smallpox vaccine right now" and officials were working on possibly increasing that stockpile to provide for 77 million people. Under grilling from Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., Thompson insisted that the $300 million the administration had requested to improve state and local efforts to combat bioterrorism was "adequate."

But what is adequate in this new age? One reporter at today's White House briefing was wondering about Nunn-Lugar funds, a reference to the federal money named after Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and allocated to establish ties with firms in the former Soviet Union so as to buy up and dismantle the former superpower's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Though the program has been heralded as a success, the Bush budget proposed cuts in Nunn-Lugar funds by approximately 10 percent.

"Which ones?" Fleischer asked.

"Nunn-Lugar funds," said the reporter.

"Oh, Nunn-Lugar funds," Fleischer said. "Right."

"Are you thinking particularly of rethinking that?"

"Let me take that and get back to you on it," Fleischer said.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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