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Anthrax Outbreak: Did the Government do too Little too Late?

Aired October 24, 2001 - 19:30   ET



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right now you telling us the mail must go rain, sleet, hail or snow. You said nothing about anthrax. OK, it was nothing about anthrax. That's not in there. Close us down and find out what's going on.


TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Tonight, as more postal workers are treated for suspected anthrax, did the government do too little too late? Are officials now ready to deal with this potentially deadly disease?


CARLSON: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The list of anthrax cases grows. As of tonight, two Washington D.C. postal workers are battling the disease in area hospitals. About thirty others are being treated under the suspicion that they too have anthrax.

Meanwhile, a second "New York Post" employee has contracted skin anthrax. In response, the Bush administration announced today that it has negotiated a deal with Bayer to buy millions of tablets of Cipro at about half price. That ought to ease the cost of battling anthrax. But will it ease the fear?

With the winter approaching, a season when just about everybody exhibits flu-like symptoms, can officials prevent an outbreak of panic? Does the government have anthrax under control? Later, we'll pose those questions to the deputy postmaster general.

But first, we welcome a man who has just completed a crash course in anthrax management, Anthony Williams, who is the mayor of the District of Columbia -- Bill Press.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Mr. Mayor, welcome.

ANTHONY WILLIAMS (D), MAYOR OF WASHINGTON, D.C.: Thank you, Bill, for having me.

PRESS: Two bow ties -- I'm not sure I can stand this. WILLIAMS: What are you going to do?

PRESS: There's a lot of hurt, a lot of anger among postal workers today. I would like you to listen to what the head of the -- president of the New York postal workers union said, and get your response.

Here he is, Mr. William Smith:


WILLIAM SMITH, PRESIDENT, NEW YORK POSTAL WORKERS UNION: They are not concerned. If they was concerned, they would have tested those employees before they died in Washington, D.C. It's clear that a lot of people did not do their job and the postal workers were sitting ducks.


PRESS: So, Mr. Mayor, do you think postal workers -- we're talking Florida. We're talking New York. We're talking Washington, D.C. We are talking New Jersey. Do you think they were given timely warning, timely testing, timely protection, timely treatment?

PRESS: Well, let me say, no one cares about the needs of the postal workers and their families more than I did, because I recognize that they are just another -- often unrecognized and unknowledged -- but another group of public service employees doing their job. They're in harm's way in a dangerous situation.

On Friday, before we even knew there was the incidents of anthrax over at that Brentwood post office -- my mother and I visited two post offices, because both my parents worked in the post office.

I felt a personal connection to go out there and talk to people, which is how I got caught up in the ambit of all this personally. So no one cares about these families more than I do.

But I think it would be a terrible tragedy, if out of what has happened, we end up with the postal workers works picking at the CDC workers and poking a blame game at one another, when, in fact, you've got postal workers trying to do their job. And these CDC workers, last week, based on the science they knew at the time, the information they knew at time, the testing they did at time, really didn't have any reason to believe that there needed to be further tests done at Brentwood.

That's what they say. And I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, recognizing the tragic consequences that that's had, and recognizing if we knew then what we know now, it would have been much more comprehensive testing and treatment.

PRESS: Well, Mayor, I'm not trying to play the blame game, but it seems to me you can't fix the problem unless you know what the problem is. Let me give you another example. I just talked to Congressman Robert Wexler. He represents Boca Raton, where the first anthrax letter was received at that media facility. Three weeks tomorrow, the man was diagnosed -- the first man who died was diagnosed with anthrax. To this date, the postal workers in Boca Raton have not been tested. Doesn't that indicate that the postal service just isn't reaching out to protect its workers? Wouldn't you have to admit that?

WILLIAMS: Yes, I think that, you know, I'm not shirking responsibility. I don't represent the Postal Service or the CDC. I'm just trying to be fair here and reasonable here. But it would seem to me that, when you have got an incident like this, at this point, yes, you do some more testing and do some more evaluation, yes -- no question.

CARLSON: Now, Mr. Mayor, blame -- nobody wants to blame anyone here, but it can be, as Bill pointed out, instructive when it helps us to prevent mistakes in the future.

With that in mind, let me read something you said on this network on Monday. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer, you were asked: "Does Washington have anthrax problem under control?" You replied: "Here in the District in our region, with our private hospitals, we have put up a rapid notification system based on symptoms. We have been able to get on top of this early."

That very day a few hours after -- before, rather -- you uttered those words, a postal worker, as you know, died in a hospital in this region. He had been sent home from that very hospital the day before with flu-like symptoms...


WILLIAMS: He had died before that, but it was...


CARLSON: It was that day. It was Monday, the day you gave this interview. Now, if there was a notification systems based on symptoms in place, as you said...

WILLIAMS; I believe that this was in Southern Maryland. And I believe that the notification system that we have put in place was in place. It did recognize the symptoms of the postal employee -- the two postal workers out in Fairfax. The first one that we picked up was on Friday. I believe it was Friday night, the postal worker out at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

It didn't work as well -- obviously, it didn't work as well with that employee in Southern Maryland. We have now expanded that perimeter further -- or expanded the network further to include all hospitals in the region. So maybe I spoke prematurely there. And if I did, I regret it.

CARLSON: But then I'm -- so, as I understand this, you are saying that the man who died in Southern Maryland was outside the region that you referred to earlier. But if you had a symptom notification process in place with the hospitals, then clearly the threat was recognized. Why weren't more postal workers at that point tested and put on Cipro, if you knew or the District knew that it was a threat that warranted these postings at various hospitals?

WILLIAMS: No. As confirmation became -- as confirmation, one way or another -- either by symptoms reporting or by environmental testing or swab testing, any of these epidemiological, as they put it, sources -- as soon as we had confirmation, we did treatment.

So as soon as we knew that there was a case of anthrax in this worker out in Fairfax, we immediately began the testing and treatment of the workers at Brentwood. As soon as we had reason to believe that this had spread into -- from a variety of different means -- into other postal facilities, that treatment was then expanded to included all postal workers and people visited postal facilities in the District.

PRESS: Mayor, in "The Washington Post" this morning, Howard Kurtz has his column entitled "How to Botch a Crisis." So I want you to put yourself in the position of somebody watching this show somewhere around the country. And all of us have been watching this crisis develop over the last couple of weeks.

So first you've got the secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, saying this: Well, this came from this guy who took a drink out of a creek down in North Carolina or somewhere when he was fly-fishing. Then you've got postmaster general who went out to Brentwood, where you did not go, but he went out there and said to the workers: It's no problem.

We found out that wasn't true. Then you have the CDC telling the postal workers at the time: no need to get tested, no need to wear any protective clothing.

My question is: Even today, based on that experience, why should any of us believe anything that these government agencies say about this problem?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I'll just tell you my own local experience.

I think it's very, very important -- what I've learned from the incidents on September 11, through this anthrax situation, just speaking to you as mayor of a city that's, unfortunately, a target- rich environment, I think it's very, very important that you get out there early with information as soon as you have information, but make the important distinction between fact and rumor and the important distinction between what you know and what you don't know.

I think what citizens want to know is what you know and what you don't know. And they can deal with that. But admit what you don't know. You know, two weeks ago, we didn't know a lot. Last week, we didn't know a lot. Frankly, this week, we still don't know a lot. But let's be honest with people with what we don't know. And that way people can manage their lives around it. They can manage the risk. And that, it seems, we need to be more consistent on, certainly between the levels of government and between the different agencies of government than we have been.

PRESS: Let me ask you something else about your experience as mayor, because this city has been hit pretty hard. And it still isn't...


WILLIAMS: Well, part of my -- part of the difficult job here as mayor here in Washington, D.C. is the integration with a federal government. I mean, who is in charge?

PRESS: That's what I want to ask you about, because you've got buildings that are still closed. You've got streets that are still closed -- more at night than during the daytime. There's talk of closing even more streets, not just Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

You've got no trucks, no tour buses allowed anywhere near the Capitol. Who knows what other restrictions? My question to you is: Has all of this stuff come down in a -- because they have been cooperating with you and want decisions to be made, or are these decisions being forced on you by the federal government?

WILLIAMS: Well, the decisions can be -- the decisions are ultimately federal decisions. What we like to think is that we are consulted, that there's collaboration as the decisions are being made. But because of federalism in our constitution, they are ultimately federal decisions.

But, having said that, I am always going to push back, when it comes to the openness of this city. Why? Because democracy was set up as an experiment where we knew from the get-go, to use a technical term, that it was going to be hard.

Democracy is much harder. There's harder costs in terms of process, harder costs in terms of a press running around crazy, harder costs all the way along the line in terms of taking risk. When you go the democracy route, you're accepting a risk. And we don't recognize that when we close our society.

So, here in Washington, D.C., of all places, we have to push back and say: We can't let these guys that are fighting -- the men and women fighting over there in South Asia, be fighting for a hollow victory.

They are fighting for openness and freedom and assembly.

PRESS: Open the streets.

WILLIAMS: Open the streets, right.

CARLSON: And also for the press to run around crazy, that's one of the things they're fighting for.

WILLIAMS: And for the press to beat up on us.


CARLSON: Well, in that spirit, let me ask you this. You've been asked a number of times, of course, you and you mother, as you said, went to two different post offices, which are fed by Brentwood. And you...

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, a lighter note of all this, is my mother walked down the hall and she -- we were talking to these postal workers. We waited in line with the postal workers. And my mother said, "Honey, Lord knows I've got to get this treatment because I don't want to come down with Amtrak."


CARLSON: The service...

PRESS: Amtrak isn't bad.

CARLSON: In its defense, it's gotten better.

But my question to you is...

WILLIAMS: I didn't mean that as a criticism of Amtrak.

CARLSON: Well, you've been asked this before by I think a couple of different people who asked you, Mayor Williams: Who told you it was safe to go to these two post offices? And you haven't been very specific, as far as I can tell, in your response. Can you tell us now who specifically said it's safe to go to these post offices?

WILLIAMS: Well, we consulted with our health department who's, in turn, looking for guidance, consulting with the CDC and the postal people.

They said we don't want you in the Brentwood facility for a variety of different reasons, uncertain there, but you can go to these other postal places and there I went.

CARLSON: The D.C. Health Department said that?

WILLIAMS: The D.C. Health Department, looking for guidance, working with the CDC...

CARLSON: But, you know, the District wants to be taken seriously, wants to be a state. And so -- boy, we could just leave it just on the width of D.C. Health Department.

WILLIAMS: This is where my life is a complicated life because you have got a federal building, the federal U.S. Postal Service is unclear, even if we wanted to, whether we could go in there without invitation on to federal property.

That's why we're looking for guidance from federal authorities.

PRESS: Quick question, quick answer...

WILLIAMS: Not to point blame, but just to explain the situation.

PRESS: Quick question, quick answer -- is it safe to open your mail today in Washington, D.C.?

WILLIAMS: I think people are working aggressively to get on top of the situation. There is a risk in opening your mail all over the country.

I think the postmaster recognized that and I think it's good that he's recognizing that and getting that out to the public so we can deal with it.

But it's a small minimal risk. I think there's a greater risk of getting hit by lightning out on the Mall.

PRESS: Mayor Anthony Williams, thanks for joining us on CROSSFIRE.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Bill.

PRESS: We're going to take a quick break.

When we come back, the mail carriers can handle rain, sleet or snow. But can they handle anthrax?

We'll pose that question to the deputy postmaster general, John Nolan, coming up right next on CROSSFIRE.



JOHN POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL: We sought out the best medical experts in the world, and certainly the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC, the surgeon general are, you know -- we feel that they're the best experts in the world and we were following their direction.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

With so much attention over the last 10 days centered on those who received poison mail, too little attention was paid to those who delivered it.

The result: two postal workers dead, two still in the hospital, about 30 others with suspicious signs of anthrax. So did the postal service get bad advice or did it fail to protect its workers?

Joining us now: Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan -- Tucker.

CARLSON: Mr. Nolan, thanks for joining us. We've heard conflicting -- or what appear to be conflicting -- reports all day about the safety of opening the mail. Some reports have said it's safe to open it and others have said you ought to wash your hands after doing it.

What, specifically, is the risk to the average person opening his mail at home?

JOHN NOLAN, DEPUTY POSTMASTER GENERAL: Well, I think it's been fairly clear from most of the reports that the risk -- any risk that may exist is infinitesimal.

We have taken all the appropriate actions and more to ensure the safety, at this point, of our employees, of our customers. We are delivering safe mail, safely today, in every city in this country.

Does that mean that's there's absolutely no chance of a problem? No, it doesn't. But we have sent out guidelines to tell people what are the likely kinds of pieces of mail that might be of concern. And 99 percent of the mail that you get doesn't fit that category. It's major -- it's magazines, it's bills, it's direct mail, advertising mail.

And the mail is safe. The mail -- we are delivering safe mail today throughout the country.

CARLSON: But there -- Deborah Willhite, who is the senior vice president of the postal service, was interviewed today by the AP. And she said this -- not about risky-looking mail, not about mail from which powder is dropping or with -- written in block letters now -- but about all mail.

This is what she said: "We believe people should wash their hands with soap and water after they handle their mail every day just to make sure if anything is on the envelope, that they're clean. We have no reason to believe that there would be anything on them. But what's the problem with clean hands?"

Well, I wonder if the problem isn't panic. I mean, to tell -- for a senior postal service official to tell America you ought to wash your hands after you're opening ordinary mail.

That's scares people, doesn't it -- terrifies them?

NOLAN: Well, I think it was taken out of context, with all due respect.

If the question is: If you really wanted to make sure that you had no concerns over what you were handling after you were handling it, what are the kinds of actions that you might take? You know, washing your hands would be a reasonable thing to do.

Do we believe that there's a problem with handing the mail? No, we don't.

PRESS: The problem that I have with washing your hands -- I mean, that's something you tell your kid when he comes in from playing in the yard before lunch. Is that all the protection you've got against anthrax?

NOLAN: Well, again, the kind of anthrax that we've seen among our workers, predominately, has been the cutaneous, or the skin type, of anthrax.

And, thankfully, as we have received information, it's the biggest problem if you have cuts or sores or something like that on your hands. We are having our employees periodically, throughout the day as they're going to their lunch breaks as their going to other breaks, wash their hands because it's a reasonable thing to do, given the fact that there has been a problem.

PRESS: Now I'm a big fan of the postal service. I use the postal service, against other services even, just to show my loyalty, OK.

NOLAN: And we appreciate it.

PRESS: But, here's what I find troubling is the confusing message. You're saying the mail is safe. Let me remind everybody again what your boss, the postmaster general, told Charlie Gibson on ABC's "Good Morning America" this morning -- very quick little bite.


POTTER: We're telling people that there is a threat. But right now the threat is in the mail.


PRESS: The threat is in the mail, so it's safe or it's not safe.

Given that it's so confusing, given that there's a threat in the mail, according to your boss, wouldn't be the safe thing to do, the prudent thing to do, to shut down the postal service like they the shut down Senate and House office buildings until you know you got the problem fixed?

NOLAN: If you had an accident on a highway in Seattle, would you shut down the highways in Florida? There is no evidence whatsoever in almost every place in this country of anthrax. There is no evidence whatsoever.

We are watching. We are testing. We've changed our procedures to tighten them even further than we had. In the places where we have spotted anthrax or suspected anthrax, we have shut those facilities, operated around those facilities to ensure our employees are safe and our customers are safe.

Any mail we suspected of being tainted we didn't deliver until we dealt with it properly.

That's what we're doing. Our primary mission at this time is the safety of our employees and the safety of our customers, and then, is to deliver the mail on time.

PRESS: But two weeks ago, nobody would have said there was a possibility that a letter with anthrax would have arrived in Tom Brokaw's desk or Tom Daschle's mail. And if that mail -- you don't know where the mail that went through that same sorting machine ended up. Maybe it's headed for Topeka, maybe it's headed for Seattle or San Francisco. It just didn't get there yet, with all due respect. So you really don't know.

NOLAN: You're talking about mail that is weeks old now, and that mail has gotten there.

PRESS: I've received letters later than that. But all right...

NOLAN: But you're talking -- you're talking about well over 95 percent of our mail delivered on time. Even if it was one-day late, we're talking about weeks later now.

CARLSON: Mr. Nolan, Tom Daschle's office gets a letter with anthrax and Capitol Hill is essentially shut down. Everyone knows that letter came from the Brentwood facility. The facility remains open. There's not testing of every person who works there, at least not right away. Postal employees are saying -- they're saying it on television, they've said it all day long -- we're not as important as Hill staff. How do you answer that?

NOLAN: Well, I don't think that's fair, and I think that most of our employees, the -- almost all of our employees understand what happened. First of all, it is a very different thing when you've opened a letter, see the powder come out, as they did on Capitol Hill, and there was a clear-and-present danger, as opposed to the situation where at the time we didn't have any sense -- no one did -- that there was any risk at those other facilities. Now, as they said, they were following the science.

But once we found out that there was an employee that tested positive for that anthrax in Virginia that had worked at the Brentwood facility, despite fact we didn't know exactly what the problem was, we shut the facility down, we pulled in testing devices to determine what exactly was the problem, and we began testing our employees -- immediately.

CARLSON: You didn't know there was any risk? I mean, I'm not a scientist, but it doesn't seem like you need to be one to know that anthrax, holy smokes, it's anthrax. It's, you know, one of the scariest germs out there. It was in the Brentwood facility. We don't know a lot about anthrax. We knew that, but we didn't know a lot about anthrax. And that doesn't -- that didn't at time pose enough risk or sound scary enough to test everyone that worked there?

NOLAN: The best advice that we got from people who felt that they knew -- and I think we are rewriting the books on exactly what we know on anthrax over these last couple of weeks. And the CDC people and others have been working very hard to try and make sure they stay on top and get in front of the situation.

We were taking the best advice we could get. They were giving the best advice they could offer.

Ultimately, we wound up jumping in front, not because the science pointed us that way, but because there was legitimate concern on our part and on the part of our employees as to what might be happening. But I think the clear-and-present danger that existed on the Hill is not as clear. It turned out to be present, but it wasn't as clear at that point.

But I think any -- any inclination here that we just didn't care about our employees and we're just trying to push the mail through is really misplaced, I think.

PRESS: Well, let me pick up on that with a couple of examples I mentioned earlier. But let's start right here on Capitol Hill, the Capitol Hill employees were tested right away. Even the dog, the sniffing dogs on Capitol Hill were tested before the postal employees were tested.

Don't you understand why the postal employees around this town feel like second-class citizens?

NOLAN: The postal employees around this town don't feel like second-class citizens.

PRESS: They feel they were treated like second-class citizens by the Postal Service.

NOLAN: Labor management, labor leaders know exactly what we're doing and why we're doing it. It wasn't second-class citizens. You're comparing apples and oranges, to people that were right around the letter that was opened and there was powder, and people in another facility that we did not have any reason to believe at that time that there was problem.

Once we did, we shut down the processing even though we weren't sure exactly where it was. We shut down the processing of a major city's mail operation before we knew exactly where it was because of our concern for our employees.

PRESS: Now, let me ask you about Boca Raton, Florida. Congressman Wexler -- I mentioned it to the mayor -- told me just a little while ago that three weeks now that the postal employees have been asked to be tested, they've inquired about the possibility. They still haven't been given that opportunity in Boca Raton, Florida, where the first anthrax letter arrived. Why not?

NOLAN: Bad information. You've got bad information: 30 employees tested, 30 employees negative. Testing of the facilities involved found slight traces of anthrax in the carrier cases. When that occurred, we evacuated those facilities, cleaned out the cases, and everything is fine. But 30 employees tested, 30 employees negative.

CARLSON: Mr. Nolan, quickly, from now on, will postal employees who want to be tested have access to tests? Will the Postal Service test them? NOLAN: We want to do what helps make our employees comfortable. We also want to educate our employees.

I was up in New York City on Monday night, and -- or actually Sunday night and Monday, and was talking to our employees, and that question comes up a lot. Can I get tested? And so our answer to it is this: If there's no evidence whatsoever of any letter having gone through this facility and we test you Monday and it's negative, does that mean we should test you Tuesday, should test you Wednesday, should test you Thursday? All it tells you that you're safe on Monday.

What we're doing, because CDC, everyone is very busy now, we are making sure that we're not hysterical about this, and yet we are going beyond norm where there's even a potential, a hint of a problem, we're getting in testing employees, educating employees about the situation. And I think that if you talk to the employees in New York, Trenton, et cetera right now, they would have to admit, where there's someone with a concern, they're being tested.

CARLSON: Mr. Nolan, thank you very much for coming on CROSSFIRE.

NOLAN: My pleasure.

CARLSON: Appreciate it.

America is afraid. Should we be terrified? Bill Press and I will be back in just a moment with our closing comments.


CARLSON: You know, Bill, I spent my life beating up on government. I think all of my criticisms have been justified, incidentally, but in this case, in respect to the way the government has dealt with the anthrax threat, I must say I'm struck by how earnest and well-meaning and well-motivated, even while mistaken sometimes, all the people we've had on this show have been. I really think they're doing the best -- not that I think you'll ever convince postal employees of that.

PRESS: I am struck by how earnest they are and how wrong they are. And I would have to say it starts with the CIA and goes to the FBI and goes to the FAA and goes to the CDC and goes to the Postal Service. And I say that...

CARLSON: See, now we're reversing roles here.

PRESS: No, but how can you look at all the screw-ups and say that they're doing their job?

CARLSON: Of course, they're doing their jobs. They made mistakes. We all make mistakes. But I hope we don't lose focus on the people who did this, and they're not federal employees. They're terrorists.

PRESS: Some people are doing a lousy job. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE. See you then.




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