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silence did great harm
(Published November 5, 2001)
By KATHRYN SINZINGER
While two D.C. postal workers were – unbeknownst at the time – nearing death from the rare inhaled form of anthrax infection, D.C. Health Director Ivan Walks was making excuses for failing to warn the public about potential health risks at the city’s main post office on Brentwood Road in Northeast Washington.
"I think you should relax, Kathy," Dr. Walks told me on the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 19, as I continued to question whether the public – myself included – needed to worry about having been inside the Brentwood Road post office, which now stands quarantined by federal health authorities and the FBI.
It was the second telephone conversation I had had within three days with the city’s top public health official. The night before, the U.S. Postal Service had belatedly begun testing the city’s main mail-sorting facility for the presence of deadly anthrax bacteria.
Despite the perceived need for environmental tests, 10 days after the postmark on an anthrax-laden letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle’s Capitol Hill office, postal workers were not yet being tested for anthrax exposure, and the Brentwood Road post office remained open for business. Meanwhile, Congress had already shut down Capitol Hill over anthrax-exposure fears after testing thousands of congressional workers.
Dr. Walks kept blaming federal officials as I continued to ask about public health concerns. It was up to the feds to do something, he said.
"The District of Columbia Department of Health has not been the lead agency in any of this. … If you want to beat up on the feds, I would help you with that beating up," Walks said.
Forty-eight hours after he initially told me that he didn’t know whether the Daschle letter had passed through the Brentwood Road postal facility, Walks apparently hadn’t even bothered to figure out how a letter gets to Capitol Hill. I explained the process to him, based on my own knowledge and experience as a congressional employee, a postal worker in college and a bulk mailer. I also told him that I thought it sounded like "the Daschle letter was leaking" anthrax.
"I don’t think there is a public health lapse going on," he told me.
Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, Dr. Walks stood in front of television cameras with other officials to gravely announce that a Brentwood Road postal worker was hospitalized with suspected anthrax at Inova Fairfax Hospital, the city’s main post office was being closed, and postal workers needed to immediately report for testing and prophylactic antibiotic treatment.
Walks repeatedly emphasized how well the region’s health system was working, telling reporters that he was notified immediately when the ailing postal worker was admitted to Inova Fairfax on Friday night. Yet, for some unexplained reason, the Brentwood post office remained open on Saturday and opened for business on Sunday morning – and postal workers received no health warning or tests until Sunday afternoon.
Joseph P. Curseen began feeling ill on Tuesday, Oct. 16, eight days after the letter containing anthrax was mailed to Sen. Daschle from Trenton, N.J.
But it wasn’t until five days later – almost a week after Daschle received the tainted letter and but a few hours before Curseen and co-worker Thomas L. Morris Jr. died from the inhaled form of anthrax infection – that public health officials began testing Curseen’s and Morris’s co-workers at Washington’s main post office for exposure to the lethal bacteria.
Weeks before, news media reports began educating – as well as frightening – the public about the dangers of anthrax exposure after a photo editor for a supermarket tabloid became the first American in many years to succumb to the rare disease. We were repeatedly told that the onset of a flu-like ailment could occur just seven days after being exposed to anthrax and then quickly escalate into an increasingly painful fatal illness.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the health of some D.C. postal workers could be at risk from processing the Daschle letter, which officials almost immediately said contained a fine, "weapons-grade" anthrax powder that could easily disperse invisibly in the air.
In fact, it was this assertion by a panel of local and federal officials, convened on the morning of Oct. 17 at the Washington Convention Center to advise mail handlers in the news media due to the feared targeting of the media, that prompted my series of questions in the next few days to Dr. Walks, the mayor’s press office and the U.S. Postal Service.
During the session, news media personnel were advised to worry about possible contamination of their building ventilation systems if a letter containing such finely powdered anthrax showed up in their mail. I immediately thought about the ventilation system at the Brentwood Road post office, where The Common Denominator’s post office box is located and which I personally check every day.
I made clear that my questions about the Brentwood Road facility’s safety to the public had personal, as well as professional, significance to me. After several anxious days, during which officials offered few clear answers and continued to tell me they had no idea whether the work and public areas of the Brentwood Road post office shared the same ventilation system, I called my personal physician, who performed both nasal swab and blood tests for anthrax exposure. While I awaited results, which ultimately came back negative, I joined the thousands of D.C. workers popping prophylactic doses of the antibiotic Cipro.
A full week after I began asking about the Brentwood Road ventilation system, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service finally told me that the public and non-public areas of the building contained separate ventilation systems that are not connected. This answer was at odds with a quote from Dr. Walks in the same day’s Washington Post, which said the two separate systems were connected. (A USPS spokesman later told me that Dr. Walks was wrong.)
Within hours of the Daschle letter being opened, Capitol Hill workers were being tested for anthrax exposure and given protective antibiotic treatment. Within days, all congressional business – even far from Daschle’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building – ground to a halt as authorities scrambled to perform tests for anthrax exposure.
Yet, there was not so much as a health advisory for D.C. postal workers.
Despite hindsight attempts to rationalize their negligence, local and federal health authorities failed miserably to err on the side of caution. They ignored their responsibility to safeguard the public’s health.
Two apparently healthy middle-aged men are dead from inhaling anthrax. Judging from the recent recovery of a 73-year-old man in Florida who was thought to be on his deathbed after inhaling anthrax, Joseph Curseen and Thomas Morris might not have lost their lives had officials acted sooner. Other D.C. postal workers remain seriously ill, but reportedly are recovering.
Meanwhile, no one is being held accountable for failing to perform their official duty.
Officials keep telling us to direct our anger toward the persons unknown who are perpetrating this deadly crime, not the public officials who must deal with the resulting crisis.
I think the public needs to do both. Maybe others can forgive Dr. Walks and officials at the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Postal Service and elsewhere in the federal government for failing to act in the face of a public health crisis in our community. I can’t.
These officials failed to perform the official duty for which we as taxpayers pay them handsomely. In the case of Dr. Walks, the District’s health director receives $198,000 a year – far more than we pay our mayor to run the entire city.
It is entirely appropriate for taxpayers to evaluate the competence of officials entrusted with protecting the public’s health and safety when they falter. Dr. Walks’ failure to look out for the public’s health in this instance was inexcusable.
While he lacked authority to shut down a federal facility, Dr. Walks has a responsibility as the city’s health director to use common sense and his medical expertise to think independently and raise his voice to warn the public when a health risk exists. He could have sounded the alarm by contacting the news media – at least as soon as he learned that a Brentwood Road postal worker appeared to have contracted anthrax.
The doctor’s silence – as well as that of other less-prominent officials – did great harm.
Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator