Senators criticize CDC over anthrax crisis after two postal workers die from disease

Wednesday, October 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ Lawmakers directed harsh criticism at the nation's public health agency after it was confirmed that two Washington postal workers had died of inhalation anthrax.

Senators said on Tuesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose doctors are the nation's front line against bioterrorism, had suffered a breakdown in its response to the anthrax attacks.

The lawmakers said the CDC was too slow to test people for anthrax at the postal station where the two workers died. The facility had handled an anthrax-laced letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

``I am very concerned about what CDC is doing and how they are operating,'' Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said. ``Maybe I'm wrong, but it just seems to me that something broke down here. People are getting sick and people are dying.''

The postal workers died of the disease about a week after the anthrax-tainted letter was opened in Daschle's office. Two other Washington postal workers are hospitalized with the disease and five others, including a postal worker from New Jersey and a union representative, are being treated for symptoms of inhalation anthrax.

All were in centers that handle mail sent to Congress, but none of them were immediately tested for anthrax or given preventive antibiotics.

``They closed the House building down while we were in there inhaling it,'' said Abraham Odom, a package sorter at the Brentwood Road center, the workplace of the two postal employees that died of anthrax. ``That's not right. That's not fair. This stuff is supposed to be deadly.''

CDC director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan argued that the agency's doctors were acting on the best information they had in an investigation that was unheard of just weeks ago.

``We are health officials,'' he told a Senate hearing. ``These are tragedies for us as well and not something we take lightly. But you've got to know about cases to take action.''

The CDC's Dr. Rima Khabbaz, an infectious disease specialist, said the agency was ``on a steep curve of learning'' and was re-evaluating its response.

Officials said that early testing at some sites led them to believe there was little risk to postal workers. And the anthrax cases in recent weeks had involved skin infections, far less dangerous than the inhaled form.

Although Tuesday's hearing produced the sharpest criticism of the Atlanta-based agency, questions about the CDC's response to bioterrorism had been mounting since the first anthrax death in Florida on Oct. 5.

Public health experts outside the government said the agency was slow to alert doctors to the threat of other bioterrorism agents and didn't do enough to calm a jittery nation that was ill-informed about anthrax.

CDC was publicly silent as the investigation began in Florida, deferring questions to state and local health officials.

``The only people who can bring order to this is people like CDC,'' said Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of public health at Johns Hopkins University. ``This is a national crisis. This should be their day.''

He questioned why in Florida the CDC didn't hold daily briefings to help sort out conflicting information and inspire national confidence that the scare was in the hands of medical experts.

Presenting the image that health workers are directing the response _ not politicians or investigators _ is a key part of CDC's mission, said Dr. Gregg Wilkinson, epidemiology chairman at the University of North Texas' public health school.

``I think that there's a bit of an overreaction on the part of many members of the public. People are not using their heads,'' he said. ``That's where CDC and public health agencies need to calm people's fears.''

CDC spokesmen say they were initially restricted by their parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and by the FBI investigation and federal emergency laws.

Georgia's Sen. Max Cleland came to the CDC's defense: ``The only time they've been throttled back is for national security. They're the best in the business, and thank God we have them.''

Established in 1946 to promote Americans' health by preventing disease and injury, the CDC is accustomed to doing its most dangerous work behind the scenes. It covers everything from tracking the flu to stopping gun violence. It rarely discusses the research it performs in high-security labs on the world's deadliest pathogens.

Soon after anthrax appeared in Florida, the CDC's disease detectives were dispatched to investigate. At its Atlanta headquarters, officials set up a crisis center, with dozens of scientists processing tests.

``We're working around the clock,'' said Dr. Julie Gerberding, acting deputy director of CDC's infectious disease branch. ``Our capacity to address the emerging threats is one that is evolving as the threat situation evolves.''

``No one doubts the urgency of this,'' said Dr. John Ward, editor of a weekly CDC bulletin. ``It's very reminiscent of CDC's response to the early days of the AIDS epidemic.''

But even as criticism of the agency was unleashed, congressional leaders were moving toward pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the agency.

To justify the spending, some lawmakers point to another failure early in the anthrax scare: Bad wiring caused a power outage at the CDC that delayed by 15 hours the agency's identification of the anthrax case at NBC News in New York.

``We have a crisis in America today, and CDC is at the point of the spear,'' said Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chair of the House terrorism subcommittee. ``These folks are doing a great job. But they need to have the resources to do a better job.''