The Anthrax Threat
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GWEN IFILL: Joining us for more on the anthrax story are Patrick Donahoe, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the United States Postal Service; William Burris, executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union; and Dr. George DiFerdinando, acting commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
Mr. Donahoe, we just heard what the officials from the Centers for Disease Control had to say about this. Are you satisfied that government officials acted quickly enough in this case?
PATRICK DONAHOE, United States Postal Service: Yes, Gwen. We’ve been working together with the CDC for about a week-and-a-half now.
Originally our discussions with CDC were around education and how we educate the employees, how we educate the public about the risks of anthrax and the risks that it would pose in the mail. That was after the stories we heard in Florida, and then the letters that arrived up in the Congress and in New York.
What’s occurred now, we’ve been working much quicker to try to address these situations as they’ve come about. The CDC has been helping us with the testing and with the administration of the drugs to combat the anthrax.
GWEN IFILL: It was the CDC who told you that probably anthrax could not leak out of a sealed envelope. Do you still trust that advice?
PATRICK DONAHOE: Well, I think this is a real fluid situation. The original assumptions were that you would get inhalation anthrax by opening a letter and breathing the spores in. I think what we’ve seen as we’ve been going along especially in Brentwood and we’ve taken the same approach in our facility in Trenton and New York is to really expand what we’re actually looking at and take all the procedures we can to prevent any more of these tragedies that we had in Brentwood.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Burrus, on the day that the letter to Tom Daschle was discovered to contain this potent form of anthrax, however you want to describe it, they immediately began to test all workers in that Capitol Hill Office Building. But the testing at the post office, where that letter was routed through, didn’t begin until over the weekend.
Are you satisfied with the way that was handled?
WILLIAM BURRUS, American Postal Workers Union: It would be easy to second guess the decision of CDC and look backwards with 20/20 judgment. I believe they applied their best medical judgment to the situation. This is unprecedented in this country. They had no model to work from.
So, yes, I’m satisfied with their professionalism. And I think that they’re going to assist us in the postal community to move forward and make sure this does not occur in the future.
GWEN IFILL: Do you feel now that the workers in your union, postal workers, are safe against… It’s hard to know. Yesterday you didn’t know what you know today. Do you feel that they’re safe?
WILLIAM BURRUS: I don’t believe they’re safe. I don’t believe they believe that they’re safe. I think we have a lot to do to make them feel safe. I think there are many things the postal community is undertaking presently to ensure, absolutely ensure, that every postal employee is safe. We have some ways to go.
I just returned from a meeting with the postmaster general where we’re exploring a number of options to make sure we provide a comfort level to every postal employee, who is deserving, because they provide a wonderful service to the American public.
GWEN IFILL: For example? What kinds of options are you thinking about?
WILLIAM BURRUS: Well, we’re going to buy some equipment that will eradicate the mail, that will kill all the organisms of any disease that might be transmitted through the mail. We’re going to provide access to gloves and masks for employees to wear.
We’re going to give employees the options of washing their hands on a regular basis, and we’re going to provide a lot of counseling and other services to postal employees to give them once again the comfort level that they’ve enjoyed throughout their careers.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. DiFerdinando, as Kwame Holman was reporting there was another case of inhalation pulmonary anthrax diagnosed today in New Jersey.
Do you feel that what your response to these original reports have changed based on what happened in Washington and with the deaths of the two postal workers?
DR. GEORGE DiFERDINANDO, New Jersey Department of Health: Absolutely. As Dr. Koplan pointed out, we’ve been creating protocols literally on a daily basis and modifying them even on a daily basis. The Centers for Disease Control and the states involved up and down the East Coast have a daily conference call where we compare notes and the information coming out of Washington has directly impacted the recommendations we made to the workers in the Trenton site today.
GWEN IFILL: For instance, by telling them to be tested no matter what, for instance?
DR. GEORGE DiFERDINANDO: Well, actually what it added is that several workers come in from other postal facilities, either from state government or from other postal facilities to the line to pick up mail.
We’ve recommended now that those workers also receive a ten-day preventive prescription of cipro or other effective antibiotic. That modification that came out of the Brentwood experience is helping us here in Trenton to protect our workers.
GWEN IFILL: As you begin to trace this trail of evidence through postal routes and different postal collection sites in New Jersey, what are you on the lookout for at this point?
DR. GEORGE DiFERDINANDO: It’s the type of experience we’ve seen, and this is really two sets of experiences in Trenton. We had the earlier letters that appeared to be postmarked on September 18 and went to New York lead to go the cutaneous cases, so we have a distant exposure.
Then we also have a more recent exposure from the Daschle letter. I would point out, given the analysis of last week’s, the New York letters did not lead to a backtracking to the facilities or to where they passed through, and it was only this week’s case that led us to all reassess this.
So I might urge people to consider the entire six weeks and analyze those six weeks when we’re trying to come up with ideas of the best way of doing these things.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Donahoe, after meeting with the Centers for Disease Control today, do you have a better understanding of how that anthrax in the letter in the Brentwood facility could have leaked out and infected these two and maybe many more workers?
PATRICK DONAHOE: We really don’t have a better idea right now, but what we’ve agreed to do is work back through the system to take a look at all of the different mail handlings sites we’ve got in our Brentwood facility.
We’ll do some joint testing with the CDC. We’ve done some testing on our own and found areas where the anthrax showed up. We’ll do joint testing and then we’ll go ahead and do the building clean up.
GWEN IFILL: Are these areas mail- sorting machines? Are they tables? Flat spaces? What are they?
PATRICK DONAHOE: The postal service is a very automated organization. We’ve got high-speed sorting equipment where we sort mail all the way down to the carrier route. And that’s where we are suspicious and that we’ve got to focus our attention.
GWEN IFILL: Do carriers– and I’m going to ask Mr. Burrus this in a moment too– do carriers have reason to fear that the mail they’re delivering isn’t safe for them or for the people they’re delivering it to?
PATRICK DONAHOE: I think right now you have to put this whole thing in context on a daily basis we deliver 680 million pieces of mail.
When you take a look at this instance which we’re taking very seriously in Washington D.C., when you put it in context in total it’s a minuscule amount of mail. Our carriers and our customers really should not be that fearful of the mail that they receive in their box.
GWEN IFILL: How about that, Mr. Burrus?
WILLIAM BURRUS: Yes. I don’t represent the carriers but I do believe that they have some confidence in the mail that they’re delivering to the American public. Otherwise, an enterprise, a company like the United States Postal Service that has such a proud tradition would not be delivering poison to the homes of American citizens so there is a comfort level there.
Where we’re uncomfortable at this point is whether or not the environment in our plants does not contain additional organisms of the anthrax.
GWEN IFILL: And you’re comfortable after your meeting this afternoon that that is being addressed?
WILLIAM BURRUS: I think we’re addressing it. I think very shortly we will have in place processes, procedures and technology that will provide absolute protection for postal employees.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. DiFerdinando, how does the public health system change after this or how has it already changed?
DR. GEORGE DiFERDINANDO: Well, the first thing I’d like to point out that might follow up on previous comments is that all the people that have been infected or suspected to have anthrax are workers, either the media people who have received these letters at AMI, in Florida or in New York City, or the workers on the line.
To a certain extent this is something of a classic occupational health issue where public health has to take all the skills that it’s developed in working with labor and management and with the public to try to craft a solution to make a better workplace.
So I think public health as well as the rest of us have been looking at this as a certain type of extraordinary circumstance, which clearly it is, but we do have skills both in occupational health and in public health that we can apply. As was mentioned, can create work practices that protect our workers and protect the people that receive mail as much as we possibly can.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask about treatment. Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, said today that from now on he wants to err on the side of caution, which means in some cases treating people who have no symptoms with these powerful antibiotic. Do you think that’s wise?
DR. GEORGE DiFERDINANDO: Well, there’s a difficult balance in anthrax or in other illnesses where you treat after exposure or after infection that is not — doesn’t cause disease like tuberculosis – and that is that any antibiotic that you provide to a person can lead to either mild side effects or a hypersensitivity reaction or other types of reactions that can be quite dangerous.
So while it’s important to reassure people and to analyze the situation, there’s really a difficult balance between that and providing medications that can do harm also. I think you’re going to see this in the analysis and the discussion of smallpox that’s going to be occurring or is occurring at the same time — the cost-benefit of providing small pox vaccine to people.
So we’re all going to have to be extremely patient with each other and listen to each other as well as we can and realize that giving several thousand people Ciprofloxacin or Doxicyclin will, in fact, lead to side effects that people will have to be watching out for.
GWEN IFILL: So you recommend that this should be done or it shouldn’t be done?
DR. GEORGE DiFERDINANDO: Well, it really depends on analysis of the current situation.
We’ve been working both upstream from the Trenton site, the Hamilton-Trenton site, where you can see where the letters may have come from and we’re working downstream to Brentwood other possible facilities.
I’ll need to have more information on what the secretary presented today to really give good analysis to acting Governor DiFrancisco and to the workers and to the people of New Jersey to exactly… what exactly I will recommend in terms of the scope of treatment. It is very important to only treat when you need to, and that’s the balance that I think needs to be put out there.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Donahoe, Mayor Williams here in the District of Columbia said today that the science is changing every day. Do you think that the postal service is equipped to change right along with it?
PATRICK DONAHOE: Certainly. As you heard Mr. Burrus say, we are looking at a number of different solutions anywhere from education of our employees and the general public to the investigation that we’re doing right now with the postal inspection service and the FBI to intervention, using the latest technology that’s out there — we are very confident that we’ll be able to handle this whole situation, reduce the fear that exists right now with the mail and get back to delivering the mail like we do every day to America.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you very much for joining us.