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Last Updated

18 Nov 2002

Source: Newsday, November 17, 2002.

A year after anthrax death, Connecticut prepares for possible bioterrorism threat

By DIANE SCARPONI, Associated Press Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Connecticut got its first taste of bioterrorism nearly a year ago, when an elderly Oxford woman (case 23) was infected with anthrax.

Since then, millions of dollars of federal funds and untold hours of training and planning have been spent to prepare the state if another bioterrorist attack should occur.

A network is being created at every public health level, from colleges and hospitals to community health clinics and visiting nurse groups.

If an attack should come, whether it's another anonymous anthrax-filled letter, a nuclear power plant disaster or a smallpox outbreak, the state can use the network to treat the injured and stop any pathogen from spreading, said Health Commissioner Dr. Joxel Garcia.

"It will be like a safety net process to make sure we capture any event that may happen in the state," Garcia said.

The major work is being done through the Centers for Excellence, set up at Hartford Hospital and the Yale-New Haven Health System to plan and manage bioterrorism needs.

The two centers are coordinating plans, setting up policies through consultations with experts and assessing needs for other hospitals and health care providers.

This has been a major adjustment for hospitals, which are more used to competing than cooperating, said Christopher Cannon. He leads the emergency preparedness work for the Yale-New Haven Health System, which includes Yale-New Haven, Bridgeport and Greenwich hospitals.

"Before 9-11 in Connecticut, everyone was minding their own business but were not necessarily looking at the larger picture," Cannon said. "Everyone has come to realization that I need my neighbor -- I cannot do this independently."

An early test of bioterrorism preparedness came a year ago Thursday, when 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren (case 23) of Oxford died from inhalation anthrax at Griffin Hospital in Derby.

Lundgren, a prim, elderly widow lived alone and rarely left her house except for trips to church and the beauty parlor, was the only person in Connecticut to be infected with or die from the bacteria. Investigators believe she inhaled anthrax spores from contaminated mail, since trace amounts of anthrax were found in a postal sorting plant that handled her mail.

In all, anthrax attacks last year killed five people and infected an additional 18. Letters laden with anthrax spores were mailed to media figures and congressional leaders. No one has been arrested.

Afterward, anthrax hoaxes became daily occurrences, with emergency crews in moon suits expending valuable resources pursuing fake threats.

The big fear has since shifted to smallpox and nuclear power plants.

Smallpox was eradicated through global immunization efforts except for small samples held at government labs in the United States and Russia.

The government now says that other countries may have smallpox and may try to make it into a weapon.

Historically, the highly contagious virus has killed about 30 percent of the people it infected. Routine immunizations stopped in the United States in 1972, and people who got the vaccine before then might be susceptible because experts think any immunity has worn off.

Connecticut is waiting for the federal government to decide who should be vaccinated and when.

The state expects that military personnel and at least a core team of health care workers -- about 6,000 people -- will get the vaccine. If the government recommends that all health care workers should get the vaccine, about 110,000 to 130,000 doses will be needed.

If an outbreak occurs and everyone must be vaccinated, the state plans to set up more than 70 vaccination clinics run through local health departments.

To prepare against a nuclear disaster, the state is mailing about 270,000 potassium iodide pills to people who live near nuclear power plants. Potassium iodide, sometimes referred to as KI (the abbreviations for the chemical elements potassium and iodine), prevents the thyroid gland from absorbing cancer-causing iodine isotopes that could be released in a nuclear fallout.

Besides this, officials near the Millstone nuclear plants in Waterford and the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee plant in Haddam are going over their evacuation and containment plans.

Federal regulations already required such plans, but the procedures were not integrated for the various needs of health care workers, police, fire officials and others, Cannon said.

The Centers for Excellence is helping identify the risks, develop protocols, get necessary equipment and bring consistency to the action plan, he said.

Schools in Connecticut also are getting into bioterrorism. The University of New Haven is going to be offering a national security degree through the Sandia National Laboratory in California.

Yale University's School of Epidemiology and Public Health is offering class starting this year on the public health management of disasters.

The school also is seeking $1 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Association of Schools of Public Health to establish a center for public health preparedness.

The proposed Yale Center for Bioterrorism and Disease Outbreaks would develop training programs and teach courses for public health professionals, said Brian Leaderer, the vice chairman and deputy dean of the school.

Yale and several other schools around the country have been approved for the grants but has not received the money yet, pending budget decisions in Washington.

Previously, public health schools have not focused on the management of mass disasters, but that is changing, Leaderer said.

"The one thing we realized from 9-11 and the anthrax scares and threats of bioterrorism is that public health has suddenly become a prominent player in trying to protect the public in general," he said.