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Last Updated

13 Oct 2002

Source: The Times, Trenton (New Jersey), October 13, 2002.

Anthrax episode side effects still trouble many


Local emergency and health agencies were inundated during the crisis.

Robert Wood Johnson spent $651,000 to treat 1,400 postal employees. The Postal Service in June agreed to reimburse it about $620,000, but only after months of negotiations.

Trenton Fire Battalion Chief Richard Farletta said his department's hazardous materials team responded to 235 anthrax calls between October and December 2001. He said it sent a request for reimbursement to the state for nearly $81,000.

"We're still hoping," Farletta said. "I realize things don't usually move quickly. Still, it's been over a year."

Gilmore said the township is still waiting to be reimbursed by the state for more than $200,000 it spent responding to the crisis.

During the anthrax crisis, many contended federal officials failed to communicate accurate information.

"There was no protocol as to how to deal with this kind of problem," Smith said. "It was seat-of-the-pants flying."

Steve Ostroff, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said lack of clear communication was the biggest failure, and new CDC Director Julie Gerberding called improving communication the highest priority for her office's work on bioterrorism.

Smith introduced legislation, recently approved by the House, that would require the Veterans Affairs Department to create four health-care centers around the nation to specialize in emergency preparedness.

"It would exponentially enhance our ability," Smith said.

The centers would offer medical training for those responding to terror attacks, develop systems for detecting and diagnosing biological, chemical and radiological agents and treat victims. The bill calls for spending $100 million throughout five years to set up the centers.

"There was a lack of a clear line of authority of who does where and what and when," Smith said. "That has to change. Shame on us if it happens again."

Christy Stephenson, CEO of Robert Wood Johnson, which treated about 1,400 postal workers, said improving communication was the biggest lesson learned. She said the hospital has spent much time and money in the last year working to improve plans to respond to such attacks, such as debriefing those involved, increasing staff and countywide training and buying a decontamination unit.

"We didn't let that learning just drop and cease when that emergency was over," Stephenson said.

Not everyone is confident the communication concern has been addressed.

Robert R. Butterworth, a clinical psychologist from Los Angeles who specializes in anxiety and trauma, said people remain scared and anxious because no one seems to be addressing how to better inform the public the next time around.

The government has stockpiled smallpox vaccine but hasn't told anyone how to get it if an outbreak occurs, he said.

"They need to think about that because if we're thinking ahead, we're not panicking," Butterworth said. "If nobody knows what to do, anxiety and panic set in and people will be ill prepared to know what to do." An unsolved crime Improving public health preparedness is one thing.

Catching the anthrax killer is another.

The FBI believes the mailer is someone with a scientific background who is familiar with central New Jersey.

While the FBI has yet to name a suspect, officials said there are about 30 "persons of interest." That includes bioweapons expert Dr. Steven J. Hatfill. His Maryland home has been searched several times, but he repeatedly has denied any involvement.

"The investigation is ongoing," said FBI spokesman Chris Murray. "We're continuing to pursue leads aggressively."

It's been more than a year, but Murray said the FBI never knows how long it will take to break any case.

"The public can rest assured we will pursue this thing as long as it takes," he said.

Smith said he asks for regular updates from the FBI, but hasn't heard any news.

Weldon Kennedy, who worked for the FBI for 33 years before retiring in 1997 as deputy director, said it's likely the mailer was intelligent, acted alone and was extremely careful not to leave behind evidence.

"In a way, I'm not surprised it's taken this long," he said.

The anthrax tension reappeared in August, when FBI agents converged on Princeton Borough after swabs from inside a mailbox at 10 Nassau St. tested positive for anthrax. In the following days, several people along Nassau Street said they were shown a picture of a white male identified by investigators as Hatfill.

Investigators said it may never be determined whether the Nassau Street box was the entry point for one of the anthrax-laden letters or whether it was contaminated by other mail.

"The public just has to be patient and let the investigation take its course," Kennedy said.

A coming together

Despite the fear, many said they saw good come from the attacks when the community worked to withstand the crisis.

"What was encouraging from this crisis was the response from the grass-roots level," Gilmore said. "People came together to work through this."

Said Stephenson, "It was something we all learned together, and people really stepped up to the plate. It was a trial by fire, or a sink-or-swim situation, and I think we learned to swim very quickly."

Still, Ross said the nation was fortunate the attack was limited.

"It could have been much worse, sure, but that was merely by the grace of God, I think," Ross said. "We shouldn't take much credit for that."

He said the nation has focused too much on smallpox and not enough on anthrax in the past year.

"An effective dispersal of anthrax spores into a heavily populated area will kill hundreds of thousands," Ross said. "That's what I fear most."

Tomorrow: Anthrax victims struggling to return to normal.