A part-time Oracle employee said Monday that she received an envelope containing a white, powder substance sometime last week.
And as a precaution, she was tested for anthrax on Tuesday.The employee, who is not a student and whose name isn’t being published because of the medical sensitivity surrounding the case, said she thought nothing of the incident at the time. She said she threw the envelope in the trash without touching it or placing it to her nose to smell.
University spokesman Michael Reich said USF’s Environmental Health and Safety officials inspected the office space where the envelope was opened and there were initially no signs of the substance remaining, and that area has been closed at least until Friday.
That’s when the employee’s test results are expected and officials will know whether she is positive for anthrax. If she is her office will be tested, and other Oracle employees will be prescribed antibiotics.
No other Oracle employees were tested Tuesday for exposure to anthrax because contact with the powder was contained to one person, as far as officials can tell.
Medical experts said that people in the same environment of a potentially dangerous powder, who did not have direct contact with the substance, will not be tested unless a positive case of anthrax is identified. This would be done through testing of the suspicious powder or the individual who was in contact with it.
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis, according the Center for Disease Control, and it is considered to be a potential agent for biological warfare.
It can be contracted through a cut or skin abrasion, by inhalation or through the intestinal tract. Anthrax is not spread from one person to another, doctors said.
According to the Anthrax Anxiety report on MSNBC.com, the FBI has received more than 2,300 incidents or suspected incidents involving anthrax or other dangerous agents since Oct. 1.
In Tampa alone, between 40 and 50 potentially dangerous packages are reported each day, said Jacqueline Cattani, director for USF’s Center for Biological Defense.
“These instances are coming from every segment of society,” she said of the suspicious envelopes of powder that have been mailed to a number of news organizations including the St. Petersburg Times and the office of NBC’s Tom Brokaw.
Initially, Oracle staffers were told that everyone would get tested for exposure to anthrax, but Cattani said tests would only be done if the employee’s test results are positive.
Cattani said the method of testing initially proposed, swabbing the nasal passages, is not as effective as the blood test and that the swab test can give false results.
“If you’re not sick, there’s nothing that can happen to you,” Cattani said.
Cattani also told the staff that the stretched resources of the Health Department and other agencies was one reason for not having the employee’s office tested right away.
The Oracle package wasn’t the first suspicious package found on campus. Reich said a powdery package was found in the woman’s bathroom of the Education building on Monday. He said University Police was called, and the package was determined to be safe. Reich said Tuesday he knew of no other reports of potentially dangerous packages being found on campus other than that one and the one reported at The Oracle.
Dr. Egilda Terenzi, director for Student Health Services, met with The Oracle staff Monday and Tuesday to answer questions about any medical concerns.
Staffers asked about transmission and testing.
Mathew Wasserman, an Oracle copy editor, said he thinks it may be a false alarm because of the numerous hoaxes around the nation.
“If what they say is true, and by Friday we’ll know that by going on antibiotics we’ll be OK, as long as nobody is allergic” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to turn out to be anything. The whole thing seems fishy.”
Terenzi said anthrax is such an effective bioterrorism tool because it can be controlled, and mere human-to-human contact doesn’t spread the disease.
Terenzi said symptoms for exposure to anthrax spores are similar to those of the common cold. But watch for a fever that is more than 100.5 degrees, she said, which is usually an indicator that a physician should be consulted.
Oracle staffers were concerned that no treatment was being given to them once their co-worker said she received the envelope with powder in the mail. Terenzi said that if everyone was healthy now, there was no need for alarm.
If the employee that was tested for anthrax is found to have contracted the disease, then Terenzi said antibiotics will be sure to keep other Oracle employees from becoming ill. The important thing to do is stop the bacterium from producing a toxin, which doctors said can be fatal.
President Judy Genshaft also visited by The Oracle on Tuesday to ask staffers how they were feeling about the situation.
“It’s very important we use precautions,” Genshaft said.
Reich said Genshaft sent a fax to the Board of Trustees which explained the situation at The Oracle.
Genshaft said whatever the outcome, USF is prepared.
“We have the best testing facilities in the country,” she said. “We have the best infectious disease center in the country.”
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 13 people in New York and Florida have either been exposed to or contracted anthrax, according to MSNBC.com. Of those people, only one person has died – Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the Sun tabloid in Boca Raton, which is part of the American Media Incorporation.