Anthrax threats inundating state and local officials

Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A Veterans Administration clinic is cleared for several hours after an anthrax threat is received. A passenger jet is kept on the ground overnight after cleaning crews discover a powdery substance on a seat that later turns out to be coffee creamer.

Whether they be hoaxes or well-intended caution the as-yet empty threat of anthrax in Alaska is keeping emergency response officials scrambling to keep up.

Technicians at the state Public Health Laboratory have been testing all suspicious substances sent there in the wake of several confirmed cases of anthrax on the East Coast.

On Monday six state workers at a Head Start administrative office were cleared of any traces of the rare disease after one opened a suspicious letter last week, said Bob King, press spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles.

No presence of the deadly but treatable disease has been found in numerous tests by state health officials, King said.

Only fear of exposure seems to be on the rise, state officials said. Previously innocuous letters postmarked from the Middle East are being quarantined for tests.

An autopsy was performed at the request of family members last Wednesday on a person who died in an Anchorage hospital. Family members had feared anthrax poisoning, but not trace of the disease was found.

State and local emergency officials continue to receive reports of suspicious envelops or anthrax threats. All have to be investigated, King said.

''It's burdening law enforcement and public health officials. It's also adding to the overall climate of fear,'' King said.

Anchorage police and fire department responded to nine such threats this weekend, said police spokesman Ron McGee.

At least two more reports were investigated on Monday which in one case resulted in the temporary evacuation of about 200 workers at an Anchorage VA clinic.

An employee at the Alaska VA Healthcare System and Regional Office found a letter on a bench outside alleging the building was contaminated by the infection.

A powdery substance was found in an examination room sprinkled on a computer keyboard, said Michael Bell, community affairs director there.

''If it turns out to be a hoax, whoever did it really put patients out. And that's a sad commentary on this thing,'' Bell said.

Police were also contacted after a letter containing a packet of yellow and white powder was opened at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute on Monday. Employees sealed it and contacted authorities without reading the letter, said Randall Burns, chief executive officer for the facility.

''We want to reassure people we are taking each of these seriously,'' McGee said. ''We have no choice but to take these seriously. However, it is stretching our resources thin.''

An Alaska Airlines 737-200 was grounded in Anchorage overnight on Saturday after a cleaning crew reported a white powder found on a passenger seat, said Jack Evans, an Alaska Airlines spokesman.

The substance was later found to be coffee creamer, King said.

''It's an indicator of how sensitive people are to any powdery substance,'' Evans said.

Anthrax is a rare disease produced by a bacteria caused by spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Anthrax can be absorbed in the skin, inhaled or consumed in tainted animal products.

Reports of anthrax began surfacing after Robert Stevens, a photo editor for a supermarket tabloid in Florida, died of the disease. Other employees of American Media Inc., where he worked, have been found to have the disease, but it is not known how they contracted it.

At least one letter received by NBC News in New York was tainted with anthrax and field tests indicated its presence in a letter also received by Sen. Tom Daschle's office. Aides to Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, also reported receiving a suspicious letter.

No link has been found with the anthrax cases and the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. But fear of anthrax has prompted people to be overly cautious in dealing with the disease, which is treatable by a regime of antibiotics.

At least four letters postmarked from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia containing Islamic religious materials have been turned over for testing, King said.

One was sent to an Alaska National Guard armory in Kodiak. Three others were spotted by postal workers in Anchorage.

In Juneau, six state workers underwent tests after one observed a white puff of smoke emitted from a letter on Friday.

The letter was from an Anchorage school district and contained a check, King said. Tests are still being conducted on the letter, he said.

He said reports from concerned people will continue to be followed up by investigators.

''As long as there are real positive cases out there, I think people are going to be concernd,'' King said. ''I just hope people keep it in context.''

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