U.S.: The Jitters (NY Times on public calls, concerns)

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Headline: THE JITTERS : Nervousness Spreads, Though Illness Doesn't

Source: New York Times, 11 October 2001

URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/11/nyregion/11JITT.html

Public health officials across the country were buffeted by calls yesterday from jittery people afraid that they might have been exposed to deadly anthrax bacteria.

The anthrax scares, none of which turned up evidence of the bacteria, were part of a wave of concern as Americans nervously reacted to the news that workers in an office building in Boca Raton, Fla., had been exposed to anthrax, and federal agents tried to determine whether the incident was an act of bioterrorism.

The calls from jittery citizens have been most intense in Florida, where a photo editor at The Sun newspaper in Boca Raton died of anthrax last Friday, and two co- workers have been exposed to anthrax spores. Florida officials have received more than 100 calls about suspicious substances, none of which turned out to be hazardous.

But with public concern running high and members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization vowing to carry out more terror attacks on American soil, local law enforcement and public health officials have been treating most reports as potential emergencies.

After answering 19 calls on Monday, Miami police were running low on disposable protective jump suits they use for every call involving potentially hazardous material.

Similar incidents have been reported across the country.

In New Jersey, two office buildings in downtown Trenton were evacuated yesterday after occupants reported opening packages containing a white, powdery substance that they feared might be anthrax, state officials said. Tests revealed that the powder was harmless.

In Watertown Center, N.Y., near the Canadian border, employees and patients at a physician's office were evacuated after a white substance was found there.

A small office building in Darien, Conn., was also evacuated yesterday after a powdery substance was found on a desk. In Covington, Ky., the authorities sealed off part of an Internal Revenue Service processing center on Monday and quarantined 200 people after an employee opened an envelope containing an unidentified white powder.

In Honolulu, a supermarket and a Mormon tabernacle were evacuated yesterday after at least seven people were exposed to a powdery substance found in a garbage bin.

Law enforcement officials said they have also been getting an increased number of calls about suspicious packages, and bomb threats.

Two crossings on the United States-Canadian border were closed yesterday one north of Burlington, Vt., the other in Champlain, N.Y. after they received bomb threats.

Officials at Bloomsburg University, in Bloomsburg, Pa., evacuated their campus Tuesday after receiving bomb threats and decided to remain closed for the rest of the week. A university spokesman, Jim Hollister, said school officials made their decision after the police convinced them that the threats were credible. "If a decision seems extreme and leans to that side, we feel a lot better about it than the other way," Mr. Hollister said.

At both of the incidents in Trenton, one at the former Trenton Trust building, a block from the State House, and the other in a state office building, local officials responded by sending an array of fire trucks, police cars, ambulances and hazardous material crews.

Ralph Persico, director of emergency management for Mercer County, said the hazardous materials response team determined that the suspicious substance found in the Trenton Trust building appeared to be excess dried glue used to seal the envelope.

John R. Hagerty, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police, said that officials from the state's Department of Environmental Protection tested the powdery material at the other building, and determined that it was "inert and did not pose any type of public safety threat."

Experts in biological terrorism, who say the likelihood of an attack is extremely slim, warned that local authorities might be fueling a sense of hysteria by responding to the scares with sirens, flashing red lights, crime-scene tape and technicians donning hooded protective jump suits.

"There's no need for any of that," said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. "Even if there were real anthrax spores in an envelope and the envelope were open," he said, "this is not going to spread throughout the building, unless the envelope is shaken or moved or dropped."

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), October 11, 2001

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