Latest anthrax scare brings call for better bioterror technology

The Postal Service reacted appropriately in response to an anthrax scare last week at a mail facility in Washington, but the incident illustrates the need for better bioterrorism technology, federal officials said Monday.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said the Postal Service had no choice but to close 11 mail facilities last Thursday when preliminary tests on an air sample from the Naval Consolidated Mail Facility in Southeast D.C. indicated possible anthrax contamination. Most mail handled at the Navy facility also passes through the V Street N.E. Post Office, which serves federal agencies.

In the fall of 2001, five people in Connecticut, Florida, New York and Washington were killed and 13 others sickened when anthrax-laced letters were sent to two U.S. senators and a number of media outlets.

"I think the postal service is erring toward overreaction rather than caution, and I can't blame them," Norton said. "I think that until we get better bioterrorism protection, they are put in the position of having to shut down facilities when the odds are very much against the discovery of a harmful substance."

Tests at the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Md., over the weekend were negative for anthrax, said Navy spokesman Lt. Mike Kafka. By Monday, the closed mail facilities were reopened and more than 1,000 postal employees returned to work.

After the 2001 anthrax attacks, postal officials came under fire from employees and others for failing to shut down the Washington processing plant that handled the anthrax-tainted letters. The letters were processed at the Brentwood postal facility, renamed the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center, in honor of two postal employees who died from anthrax exposure. In October, Brentwood Exposed, a group of Washington-area postal workers, filed a class action lawsuit over the incident. The deaths led postal officials to adopt new mail-handling procedures at government postal facilities in Washington, including irradiating mail to render anthrax spores harmless.

"I think that this past week was a testament that those systems do work and they are in place to protect not only the postal workers, but those who receive mail from those facilities," said Kafka.

Sally Davidow, spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, said the Postal Service handled the situation appropriately. She said communication with postal workers has gone through "ups and downs since 2001" but was good last week.

"I think in this incident that things were handled well," she said. "We certainly supported the Postal Service's decision to close the 11 offices as a precautionary move while the tests were being done."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which has oversight over the Postal Service and the Homeland Security Department, agreed with Norton that better technology is needed.

"Unfortunately, this incident also shows how vulnerable we still are to bioterrorist attacks," Collins said Friday. "Now, more than ever, it is essential that we work to fill the gaps in our nation's defense and surveillance systems against bioterrorism."

Postal Service spokesman Bob Anderson said the agency plans in March to install new biohazard detection systems at 282 major processing and distribution centers across the country. The new systems will scan mail that is collected from drop boxes for possible contamination, Anderson said. All mail destined for federal agencies in Washington will continue to be irradiated.

However, if federal agencies and private companies want protection beyond what the Postal Service is doing, they need to invest in new technology themselves, Anderson said.

Overall, the anthrax scare last week did not cause significant disruptions to the federal government, a General Services Administration spokeswoman said. She said mail collection and delivery was stopped for Friday only, and returned to normal on Monday.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.