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Is Port Washington Prepared for Biochemical Terrorism? And What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?

Anthrax Scare Locks Down Weber School for Short Time

Local officials answer emphatically that Port Washington area is prepared to deal with biological and chemical terrorism. And the best way to protect yourself and your family is to be vigilant, but don't let your imagination run wild dreaming up nightmare scenarios.

Nassau Police Inspector Tom Carroll urges getting the current wave of terrorism in perspective: "Every major city in the country has had more traffic deaths than anthrax has created. As a terror tactic, anthrax is easily treated and controlled. The likelihood of being the victim of a particular attack is so remote as to be almost beyond computation. The terrorists are trying to scare us into using our imaginations to bring us the war 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If we scare ourselves into being their victims, they win."

Of course, we do want to be cautious, Carroll said. When in serious doubt, he added, call 911 to reach the authorities. "The calls are taxing resources, but it is part of our job."

Port Washington Fire Chief Walter Trapp pointed out, "The whole public is just so uneasy right now that if it is publicized too much to call the authorities, we may not be able to handle the real situation if it happens, like the story about the boy who cried wolf."

It might be possible to tame the imagination at home, but when children are concerned, school officials would rather err on the side of caution.

Weber Middle School held students in their classrooms last Friday when a white powdered substance was discovered just before the end of the school day in a hallway of the Green House. Within moments Weber was secured by school officials, then by the Port Washington Police Department. The Port Washington Fire Department responded, and brought in the Nassau County Hazardous Materials Unit.

The fear was that the white powder might contain anthrax spores.

"They locked down that wing of the school and held the kids about 45 minutes after school," said Terri Hovanec, co-president of the Home and School Association of Weber Middle School. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Hovanec received a reassuring phone call from Weber Principal Matthew Sanzone reporting that the substance turned out to be a powdery white sugar candy. The brand was unknown, but it may have been Fun Dip, a popular treat.

Port Washington is not alone. Imaginations in other communities have spun benign treats into threats.

The New York Times recently reported that a hazardous materials team in Chicago responded to an alarmed resident's cry for help. After much ado, they released their analysis. The green goo on the sidewalk turned out to be guacamole, the green dip that is popularly eaten on potato chips.

Locally, alarms have sounded for fire officials to check substances that turned out to be such things as dried oil and baby powder, said a fire department source. We are jumpy.

Public officials agree, the best approach is to do our best to return to our normal lives, at least as much as our imaginations allow.

Port Washington Police Chief William Kilfoil confirms, "People around Port Washington should feel free to go on with their everyday lives. Police and emergency services are well trained and there is no threat in this area."

Chief Kilfoil pointed out, "We are fortunate to have both an outstanding Fire Department and local police forces that know this area very well." He said that all of the local protective agencies work closely together.

The Port Washington Fire Department last week hosted training related to biochemical threats. Invitations went to the Port Washington Police and Sands Point Police, Emergency Medical Technicians, and other key local personnel. After the seminar, which was conducted by a New York City Emergency Medical Services (EMS) captain who is affiliated with the Port Washington Police Department, a round table discussion was held so that various area fire, police and EMS personnel could continue the tradition of working smoothly with one another.

Local hospitals including North Shore University Hospital, Long Island Jewish, Winthrop-University Hospital, and St. Francis Hospital also are geared up to meet the challenge.

A spokesperson for St. Francis Hospital just down Port Washington Boulevard in Roslyn reports that St. Francis stocks the antidotes and antibiotics to treat biochemical terrorist acts. All the local hospitals train to deal with emergencies, including hazardous materials threats.

Linda Cavallo Miller, vice president for development at St. Francis, said, "We are prepared. We have always been prepared. And we are taking steps to become even more prepared."

She said that disaster drills are held several times each year to test and improve the responses of local hospitals, coordinating with fire departments, emergency services, police departments, EMS and the hazardous materials (hazmat) teams, plus other personnel. They practice dealing with large disasters. In June, the drill was based on a horrific explosion. The teams practice creating a perimeter to isolate the threat, donning protective equipment, setting up triage to stabilize victims, rushing emergency patients to appropriate hospitals, and other skills, including treating massive numbers of patients in impromptu emergency facilities.

Chief Trapp says everyone in the Port Washington Fire Department is trained to respond to a hazardous material threat by recognizing a potential threat, quarantining and evacuating the area. The specialized Nassau County Hazardous Materials (hazmat) Unit then moves in to identify the threat and dispose of it as necessary. The personnel in this hazmat unit are the only paid firefighters in Nassau County, said Chief Trapp. A number of Port Washington's volunteer firefighters also currently serve or are retired from the New York City Fire Department, the New York City Police Department or other agencies such as NYC Emergency Medical Services.

Fire Chief Trapp points out that first on the scene are police officers, who secure the area and clear the way for the fire department trucks and personnel.

Port Washington's finest and bravest are already familiar with chemical dangers and are equipped to respond with care and speed. Both local police and fire personnel have access to protective clothing, masks and breathing devices.

What does a local citizen do if confronted by something suspicious? Call 911, says Nassau County Police Inspector Tom Carroll.

Recently, fear of the mail has been prompting calls. All of the known anthrax exposures seem to have been related to spores that had been mailed.

Tom Gaynor, U.S. Postal Service communications specialist for the New York metropolitan area, emphasizes, "The key message is your mail is safe. "

Gaynor said, "Once you get some shred of information the fear starts to escalate. Your imagination can play tricks on you. That's why horror movies are so successful."

There has been confusion about what to do with suspect mail and whether it is truly suspicious.

For example, recently the mail arrived at the home of one Port Washington mother just before the school bus arrived. There was a fist-sized cube of a package among her letters and bills. Time was short, and warily, the mom left that package unopened and hurried to the bus stop. She then walked her son to a friend's house and left him there while she began a half hour of trying to figure out what was in that package, without opening it.

The return address label showed a broadcast company's name, so she called the company in Manhattan where whoever answered denied they had an office at the address on the return label. She became alarmed and called police, who advised her to return it to sender. But that could just send what she imagined was a threatening package back into the unsuspecting hands of postal workers. Some postal workers have already been exposed to anthrax and she couldn't see doing that. She called the broadcast company again and insisted on speaking with a supervisor. As it turned out, the company did have a warehouse at the return address, and without notifying the switchboard, the public relations office had mailed out free promotional coffee mugs. What seemed a crisis turned into a comedy. It did show us times have changed. The broadcaster's switchboard operators probably needed to know about the promotional mailing.

We have needed some standard policies about what to do with suspicious mail.

Last week, one local police department's policy was to encourage callers to report suspicious packages by dialing 911 so police could be alerted.

"Of course, the first thing on suspicious mail is applying common sense," Officer Tom Carroll at the 6th Precinct of the Nassau Police Department said, "Look at the mail. Does it look like commercial mail? The likelihood of someone sending bioterrorism with bulk postage is unlikely. That tells you right away it's advertising."

He added, "If it is contaminated, leave it where it is. Let's not spread it. Put it down on the table or wherever." Then call 911.

Other police sources advised that wary callers be instructed to wrap the suspicious mail in plastic, such as a zipper sandwich-style storage sack, and return it to the sender.

A local postal official urged that customers not return suspicious mail, even if sealed in plastic.

Postal worker Gaynor said the postal service is educating its employees and the public about how to identify mail that might be suspicious. He advised checking the postal service website at www.usps.com.

Local residents who want to learn more about suspicious mail or anthrax and other biological threats can check the World Wide Web, either at their personal computers or using free Internet services on computers at the Port Washington Public Library. But you won't need a computer to read the Postal Service's advice.

This week every mail customer in America will receive a Postal Service bulletin detailing how to deal with unexpected mail, to decide if it is truly suspicious, and what to do.

[See related side bar on What Should Make You Suspicious, and What Should You Do, a summary of the Postal Service's post card.]

Other websites may be useful, too. Certainly each of the major television news agencies has websites, such as the site for CNN at cnn.com. Of course, you can view the website for the Port Washington News and other Anton publications at antonnews.com.

Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Marmor suggests interested readers check the web site for the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Report, where they can see the wide variety of diseases for which the CDC is advising hospitals to be on the lookout.

Dr. Marmor, who resides in Port Washington, is a professor of environmental medicine at the New York University School of Medicine. He said the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is working with hospitals to monitor their admissions with an eye to spotting trends that indicate bioterrorism might be responsible for illness. If data bases show a spike in certain diseases, the CDC would broadcast an alert.

Sometimes reading articles, perusing websites, listening to National Public Radio and cable and network television coverage calms the imagination, because you can be reassured that public officials are doing a good job meeting the challenges. Not all news that appears disastrous at first glance is truly bleak, however.

For example, do our local pharmacies have adequate stocks of antibiotics to fight diseases such as anthrax? A quick check reveals that stocks of drugs such as Cipro are not at a level that would allow instant mass distribution.

An article in The New York Times on Oct. 21 indicates that Bayer A.G., creator of Cipro the brand name antibiotic, staunchly maintains that the supply of Cipro is sufficient. It appears as though fear has driven the demand for Cipro.

The article says Bayer officials said shortages of Cipro resulted from hoarding and doctors prescribing too many pills at a time. Some of the many infections that can be treated with Cipro would normally be treated for ten days, with two tablets a day, and then another antibiotic would then be used for the remainder of a 60 day period. For anthrax, however, the currently declared regimen of Cipro would be for only five days, presumably followed by another antibiotic. Many doctors have been prescribing Cipro for patients who are healthy, giving them a 60 day supply, which would be 120 tablets, which has wiped out the supply at many pharmacies.

The Times report notes that healthy people who take Cipro may kill off a host of easier to eliminate bacteria, leaving behind resistant strains of bacteria in their bodies. Other sources have indicated that Cipro is not the only antibiotic that can be used against anthrax, and we are prepared to treat an outbreak of this disease, which is nevertheless not communicable from person to person and requires contact with spores to catch it. Most of us are learning more than we ever expected to about anthrax. For health officials, biochemical terror is a threat they have anticipated, and recent events merely increased their readiness.

As the CDC states in its MMWR report, "After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, state and local health departments initiated various activities to improve surveillance and response, ranging from enhancing communications (between state and local health departments and between public health agencies and health-care providers) to conducting special surveillance projects."

This was merely a continuation of anti-terrorism work that has been going on for years. The MMWR report said, "Activities in bioterrorism preparedness and emerging infections over the past few years have better positioned public health agencies to detect and respond to the intentional release of a biologic agent." In other words, the federal Center for Disease Control says it is prepared and improving its abilities.

Remember what Nassau Police Officer Carroll said, "Our own imaginations have become the tool of the terrorists."

The professionals who protect and serve us are trying to calm us. They are on the job, locally and nationally. Perhaps the rest of us could exercise normal caution, remain calm, and give our vivid imaginations a bit of a rest. After all, we don't want to magnify the effects of terrorism. It's bad enough without adding imagined nightmares.

What should make me suspect a piece of mail?

* It's unexpected or from someone you don't know.

* It's addressed to someone no longer at your address.

* It's handwritten and has no return address or bears one that you can't confirm is legitimate.

* It's lopsided or lumpy in appearance.

* It's sealed with excessive amounts of tape.

* It's marked with restrictive endorsements such as "Personal" or "Confidential."

* It has excessive postage.

What should I do with a suspicious piece of mail?

* Don't handle a letter or package that you suspect is contaminated.

* Don't shake it, bump it, or sniff it.

* Put the mail piece in a plastic bag.

* Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

* Notify local law enforcement authorities.


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