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D.C. Mayor Tony Williams, Others Address Press About Anthrax Cases

Aired October 23, 2001 - 12:18   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: The principal story today continues to be anthrax and this latest case of inhaled anthrax, the deadliest form of anthrax -- a New Jersey postal worker.

CNN's Michael Okwu is in Trenton, where the information is coming out and where they are trying to sort the mail these days -- Michael.

MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, good afternoon to you.

That's right. They are calling it a suspected case of inhalation anthrax. She is a middle aged female mail sorter at this main distribution center in Trenton, New Jersey. She began feeling ill last week. She contacted her doctor last Friday. Initial tests were inconclusive. And then her doctors called specialists and sent tests to the CDC. It was after that that they determined that she may have a case of inhalation anthrax, and she's now on a number of antibiotics.

She's presently in serious, but stable, condition, in the words of the health officials here...

BROWN: I am going to interrupt you here. Just stand down for a second.

We'll go to Washington, the mayor in Washington -- and we assume this too will deal with anthrax in the postal system there.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

MAYOR TONY WILLIAMS, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: ... to try to provide you information as we're going forward to sort, as we always say, fact from rumor, and to tell you where we are with preventative measures and strategies to get on top of this situation and manage this situation.

I'm pleased to joining me, as always, is the council of the District of Columbia. I have with me Linda Cropp, who is the chair of District council, Kevin Chavous, who is the councilman from Ward 7, Adrian Fenty, a councilman from Ward 4, Carol Schwartz, representing at-large council for the District of Columbia, Sandy Allen, who's the chair of our Human Services Committee from Ward 8, Vincent Orange, a councilman representing Ward 5, where the Brentwood facility is located. And I thank all of our council members for standing united with us at this very difficult time.

Chief health office for the District of Columbia, Ivan Walks, is with me. From the U.S. Postal Service, Deborah Willhite, senior vice president for government relations and public policy. From the National Center for Disease Control, Dr. Rima Khabbaz. As you all know, she's the director of Viral Diseases Branch for the CDC. Fred Blasser (ph) is a public affairs officer, the National Institute of Occupational Therapy for the CDC.

We've now been joined by Jim Graham, who is the councilman for Ward 1. I thank him for joining us as well.

We now know that the two deaths that were reported to you and that you know about now are confirmed cases of inhalational anthrax. So that is information that we're imparting to you now. We know that the Brentwood facility has tested positive for anthrax based on the environmental work that was done, and I'll leave it to Ivan Walks and the Postal Service to talk about that.

Ivan will talk to you about, as we've talked about already and announced already, the expanded treatment of post office employees and folks who have been in certain areas of our postal facilities.

And with that in mind, my mother and I will be out at D.C. General today to receive our treatment insofar as we fall within this ambit, within this perimeter. So you'll have more details and more information on that.

This was an effort on my part, my mother and I, to be out there with our postal workers on Friday and we happened to be caught in the ambit of all this, and I think it's appropriate to be out there in the line at D.C. General again showing our solidarity for, as Governor Ridge put it yesterday, another example of uniformed personnel who are doing public duty, who have loved ones and families and are now in harm's way, another example of how this terrorism really knows no place, race, class, income, religious or other lines or distinctions. It's really striking everyone. It's just as hideous as it's always been. And I think it's all the more reason that we work as aggressively and as actively as we can to get on top of this to assure the safety of our workers and the safety of our citizens.

And with that in mind, let me now present to you Ivan Walks, our health policy officer.

Ivan?

IVAN WALKS, CHIEF HEALTH OFFICER, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Good afternoon, everyone.

As the mayor said and has been reported, yesterday we talked about two cases that were highly suspicious for anthrax, and those folks died. Today we can tell you that those two deaths were due to bacillus anthracis. They're confirmed as anthrax deaths.

The other two confirmed anthrax cases -- the two gentlemen that are receiving excellent care at Inova Fairfax Hospital -- continue to be listed as critical, but stable. We expect them to continue to be listed that way. They are doing well.

We also want to -- and I'll have Dr. Khabbaz talk more about this -- let you know what we're doing proactively; what is public health doing in conjunction with CDC, in conjunction with our hospitals and our medical professionals to be proactive, to respond to this different day, to respond to the fact that we now know differently about the risks associated with the folks who handle the mail. And Debbie Willhite will talk a little bit about that.

We now have over 40 CDC folks here working with us and we also have some changes to the numbers we gave yesterday.

Yesterday we talked about a total of 13 cases that were being investigated. Today we know about four confirmed, the two deaths, the two gentlemen who continue to do well. We have four cases that are listed as suspicious that we are following very closely. And we have another 12 cases that are very low suspicion. We've looked at those cases, the CDC folks have. They've recommend to us that they be in that category. And those cases, though they continue to be followed, they're in a very low suspicion.

What that's allowing us to do is, again, follow the science proactively and work real-time to try to identify better a period of exposure. Because we are working to do that, and inhalation anthrax is quite serious, we have, as the mayor said, expanded our treatment perimeter.

Let me review one thing: We do nasal swabs to establish a treatment perimeter. They are a public health tool. Those swabs, that testing is not a way for us to tell the individual who's being tested whether they have anthrax. It is not a way for us to confirm whether that person will get sick with anthrax. We do the swabs, we do the testing, and based on some of the test results we establish a treatment perimeter.

We have decided as of today, based on the confirmed anthrax incident, the gentlemen, the postal workers who have been confirmed, we do not need to do further testing, but we need to treat. And we need to treat quickly. We, again, are asking for immediate, immediately, people to be brought or to come to D.C. General to receive the medication they need, so we can help keep them safe and protect the public health.

The treatment perimeter has been expanded since yesterday. Yesterday we talked about folks who worked in the back area of the Brentwood facility needing to be treated. And people whose work brought them to that back area, those employees of the media, those employees of our own health department, those employees of the CDC and the FBI, who were back there doing their jobs to help protect the public health, they needed to be treated.

But also yesterday, we received confirmatory environmental tests of the Brentwood facility. We learned yesterday that there is confirmed anthrax at that site on material in that back employee work area. Because of that, we are now saying that the postal workers in the District who work in employee work areas, and again, the media crews - and here's where the mayor falls in -- those whose work brought them to those back work areas in our postal facilities now need to come in, not for testing -- the testing is a tool to tell us who to treat, we already know that -- we want those folks to come in immediately and receive their treatment.

The reason we want people to come to D.C. General is, again, good public health. We don't want you going and picking up anthrax from a doctor you know, from a friend you know, we want to get your name, we want to make sure we know who you are, we want to make sure that we have one database and we can track all of these individuals.

And let me say this. The Postal Service has been a tremendous partner. We are asking postal workers to go to work. The Postal Service will bring you from your work to D.C. General, and Debbie will talk a little bit more about that. They have been consistently with us, working closely with CDC.

The federal government's Office of Emergency Preparedness has been terrific. They have brought the medication we're using. They've brought the swabs that we did use when we were testing. And they've brought the people to make sure that everyone here gets good care.

It's a good public health message. It's a demonstration of cooperation. It's a regional approach, including those folks who are in Maryland, that work at the air mail facility, that need to be tested.

And with that, I'm going to turn things back over to the mayor and have him call on the next person. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Ivan.

And at this point I'd like to ask Debbie Willhite to come forward now and speak to this from the point of view of the post office, what they're doing and what they're finding.

Debbie?

DEBORAH WILLHITE, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR GOVERNMENT RELATIONS AND PUBLIC POLICY, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: Thank you, Mayor.

First of all, on behalf of the postmaster general and the 800,000 employees of the United States Postal Service, we want to express our condolences to the family of Thomas L. Morris, Jr. and Joseph P. Curseen, two individuals who in service of their country have lost their lives because they were doing what the people of the United States expects each and every one of you to do -- for them to do every day.

We will be working with the families to make appropriate arrangements. And we will be making announcements later on about those arrangements, working in conjunction with the families. Many of you have sent people to their homes to talk with the families. We have sent folks to assist the families in making their arrangements and dealing with your questions. We would ask for your cooperation as we are making arrangements with the families and helping them. And we will all get this done in due time. We would hope that your prayers and your sympathies would go out to them.

We would really like to ask everyone, be they a postal worker or be they a contractor or be they an individual who has a reason to visit or have business in the mail processing area of a postal facility that receives mail from the Brentwood mail processing plant, to please go to D.C. General Hospital to get your treatment of Cipro.

Any postal employee who is concerned about making those arrangements, please call the 866-545-USPS number. This treatment will be available today and tomorrow. If you are going on a later shift at the Postal Service today, report to work. Your postmaster, your supervisor, will make arrangements for transportation. Please call and make arrangements to get this done.

If you have questions about whether or not you should go, please call the facility that you do business with so that they can answer those questions. This is very, very important. We're trying to be proactive and trying to take care of the needs of our customers.

As the mayor and Dr. Walks indicated, we did get the environmental testing that the Postal Service contracted independently to have done last Thursday. We got back late yesterday afternoon. We can tell you that out of 29 swabs that we got reports back on, 14 indicated what they call hot spots within the plant.

As we discussed yesterday, we tested areas of the plant that would have been involved in processing mail that went to Capitol Hill. Mail processing machines, the government mail processing areas of the plant that would have specifically come into contact with Senator Daschle's letter and mail going to the House and Senate Post Office.

Since that time, CDC has come in and tested more areas of the plant -- the ventilation system, the priority mail processing area of the plant. Those tests have not come back at this time. And there has been a great deal more areas of the plant that are being looked at.

Since these deaths have been confirmed to be deaths caused by anthrax, the plant has been officially determined to be a crime scene, which changes the reporting nature of the information that we get back.

I'm going to turn the microphone back over to the mayor so that he can introduce the next speaker, and then we will be available for questions.

WILLIAMS: This is Rima Khabbaz. She's from the CDC.

Rima? RIMA KHABBAZ, DIRECTOR, VIRAL DISEASES BRANCH, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL: I'd like to clarify the expanded recommendations for offering antibiotic prophylaxis to postal workers outside the Brentwood facility that were mentioned.

There is no evidence of contamination or risk to postal workers beyond the Brentwood facility. The reason for the recommendation to offer that prophylaxis is a precautionary measure until we complete our assessment of any risk.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Rima.

And with this, we'd be happy to answer some questions.

Yes?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

WALKS: I think that's a very good question. One of the most critical things that we have to preserve is confidence in our public health system.

We tested and treated over Sunday and Monday more than 3,000 individuals. Initially, all of the hardworking doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others were told we were going to limit this to the postal employees. That was critical because we wanted those folks to get in and not stand in the line of 10,000 or 20,000 people who did not need to be there.

As we changed -- and, again, real-time -- what I think happened is that person got caught during the change. We certainly regret that. I expect that that person has come back and has been tested by now.

But this is what we're doing now. We are working together, public health and the media, as partners and we're working together real-time.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

(CROSSTALK)

WALKS: One of the other things -- let me mention this. On Sunday Senator Frist and his wife came down and looked at the work that we were doing here. We've had other folks from our federal government come down and look at the work we're doing at D.C. General, and this is really a model for cooperative public health.

QUESTION: You are asking people in this expanded area not to trust their own doctors but to come to D.C. General Hospital for the antibiotics. Do you really expect, given the track record that you have here, for people to bypass their own physicians to come to D.C. General?

WALKS: Let me clarify what I think is the question. If it is are we asking people to bypass their own physicians, the answer is absolutely not. We are not asking people to bypass their own physicians.

What we are asking people to do is this. If you are ill, go to where you receive medical care. Our system has received an upgrade. In September, we asked doctors to report symptoms to us, not diagnoses. We knew real time when that first gentleman was admitted to Inova Fairfax Hospital.

But what we are saying is, if you are not ill but you fall into this category that has been very well described by Debbie Willhite, we want you to come to D.C. General. There are a couple of very good reasons for that. One is, we have the medication there. We have the right medication there and we'll make sure you get the right amount of medication. The other thing we have there is that we will take a medical history to make sure that you can tolerate the medication you get. One site, one central database.

You had a follow-up?

BROWN: Dr. Ivan Walks is the lead public health guy in Washington, D.C., announcing that two more postal workers have died from an inhaled form of anthrax. That makes three inhaled anthrax deaths total in the country. He also discussed the possibility of four other suspicious cases that they're looking at in Washington.

Elizabeth Cohen is on our medical desk in Atlanta.

Elizabeth, one of the things I heard was he was talking about the treatment perimeter. I gather who this means is they no longer need to test because they know you were in an infected area -- is that the idea?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Or that you might have been in an infected area. So they draw this perimeter, and they say if you were in this perimeter, we just want you to come in and get your antibiotics, because if you have a negative or a positive nasal swab, it doesn't matter. The reason for that is -- this is very hard to understand; I'm going to try to make it simple -- a positive swab does not necessarily mean that you are infected, and a negative swab does not mean are you are not infected -- so why not just give everyone antibiotics.

BROWN: Elizabeth, we'll come back to that -- we'll update New Jersey.

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