Preparing for anthrax threat

On. Sept. 10, Jacqueline Cattani could not convince area doctors to undergo training for proper procedures in the event of a biological attack. But the director of USF’s Center for Biological Defense said now they just can’t train enough.

Cattani, who previously worked for the World Health Organization mainly dealing with malaria while stationed in Switzerland, said most employees of the center have been dedicating great amounts of time to testing packages for anthrax during the past several days.

“We put ourselves into much higher gear,” Cattani said.The Center for Biological Defense has been working with the FBI and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Cattani said there is a process that is followed whenever a potentially threatening package is discovered. She said, first, people should call the police. The police will then take the package to HazMat where tests will be run to determine if there is any kind of chemical present. If no chemical is present, HazMat sends the package to USF’s Center for Biological Defense laboratory where it is determined if any kind of biological agent is present.

Cattani said lab technicians take the sample and grow it in the lab so they have a sufficient amount of the material from which to test. Typically, this process takes 24-72 hours. However, the center was given $4 million this year for research into developing more rapid methods for testing for biological hazards. Cattani said the goal was to be able to determine if a substance posed any kind of threat in under four hours. That research, which was being conducted prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, will not be of any help with the current anthrax crisis, because Cattani said it required long-term studies.

Cattani said the center is receiving 40 to 50 potentially threatening packages per day to be analyzed, but she stressed that all of the packages have tested negative for anthrax. She said some packages have powdery substances on them that results from the glue that seals the envelopes while the others are just hoaxes.

Cattani said she is not surprised that someone or some group has begun to wage biological warfare.

“Did I ever think that I would be personally affected? Probably not,” she said. “But it’s not that unusual because many nations have been working on biological weapons for a long time.”

Another issue that has caused panic throughout the country is the availability of Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax poisoning. Cattani said the Center for Disease Control warehouses stockpiles of the drug that could be distributed throughout the country in case of a nationwide epidemic. She said it is pointless to worry about the pill’s availability, seeing how the size of an outbreak could never accurately be predicted.

Cattani has done multiple TV interviews with all three local network affiliates, three with WUSF, one on Fox’s international news network, a radio interview broadcast in Texas and another radio interview broadcast in Ireland.

Another USF department working overtime since the spread of anthrax throughout parts of the country, which first became evident more than a week ago, is the Center for Public Health Preparedness.

Michael Reid, director for the center, which is one of seven other centers nationwide funded by the Center for Disease Control, said he and his employees are not in a state of increased alert but more in a state of increased importance.

“I’m not sure alert is the right word,” Reid said. “Since Sept. 11, we have had a heightened sense of the importance in delivering training programs at a higher rate.”

He said the center will attend a meeting in about three weeks with the Florida Department of Public Health to review what the state sees as necessary training needs.

Reid said he advised his employees to take some time off in the days after the attack so they could regroup.

“When we got back together again, we realized how important the work we were doing will be and should be,” Reid said. “This is work that can save lives and prevent other scary things. We are on a mission with zeal now.”

Another area of concern on campus is the place that at one point or another intercepts these suspicious packages: the post office.

Barbara Dennison, a program assistant in the USF Post Office, said there have been no suspicious packages found there as of yet.

“I have not had any clerks indicate that they have found anything suspicious or out of the ordinary,” Dennison said. “But we have been told that if we do, to put it on a plastic bag, call the University Police, and they will contact postal inspectors.”

Dennison said the U.S. Postal Service sent USF’s post office an e-mail reiterating the procedure to take in the event of anthrax incident and also to instruct employees what red flags to look for in packages.

She said postal employees go to annual classes that teach them to detect target mail – mail exhibiting specific characteristics that the U.S. Postal Service deems suspicious.

“Typically, there is no return address, the package usually weighs more than 16 ounces and it usually is not taken to the post office, but is found just sitting somewhere,” she said.

Dennison said a total of nine employees at the USF post office handle mail, and all are aware of what to look for and the procedures that should be taken if need be.

Lonnie Bohannon, another program assistant at the post office said he can’t say that the threat doesn’t worry him, but he said the threats of anyone being exposed to anthrax at the post office are rare because they don’t open mail, they sort it.

“We don’t open any mail, so the risk is greatly reduced,” Bohannon said. “Also, I talked to people at Tampa International Airport. The mail gets screened right off the plane before it even gets here.”

Bohannon said though he and those he works with will keep their eyes peeled for target mail, the chances of ever finding a suspicious piece of mail are slim because they typically look just like many other articles of mail.

“It’s the proverbial needle in the haystack if we do catch one,” he said. “We get hundreds of letters a day that are personally written and addressed.”

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