CDC Faces ‘Harsh Criticism’ for ‘Slow’ Anthrax Response
The CDC yesterday faced "harsh criticism" from lawmakers who questioned the agency's decision not to test postal workers who handled a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) that contained anthrax, the AP/Nando Times reports. Two postal employees at a Washington, D.C., mail sorting facility died of inhalation anthrax one week after a employee in Daschle's office opened the letter. Doctors have hospitalized two other D.C. postal workers with the disease and have treated five other people, including a postal employee from New Jersey, for symptoms of inhalation anthrax. The CDC did not "immediately" test the postal employees for anthrax or treat them with antibiotics (McClam, AP/Nando Times, 10/24). During a hearing of the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations subcommittee yesterday, lawmakers "blamed" the CDC for "acting too slowly" (Borenstein, Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/24). "I am very concerned about what the CDC is doing and how they are operating," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Neb.) said, adding, "Maybe I'm wrong, but it just seems to me that something broke down here. People are sick and people are dying" (Stolberg/Miller, New York Times, 10/24). State and local health officials also said that the CDC "was slow to alert doctors" about the threat of biological agents and "didn't do enough to calm a jittery nation" after the first anthrax death in Florida on Oct. 5 (AP/Nando Times, 10/24).
CDC officials yesterday admitted that they had "underestimated the danger" that letters containing anthrax pose to postal employees (New York Times, 10/24). CDC Director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan said that early anthrax testing at some facilities "led them to believe" that postal employees faced "little risk" (AP/Nando Times, 10/24). The CDC "assumed" that postal employees could not contract inhaled anthrax through sealed letters. It is CDC policy not to test individuals in groups without "known" exposure to anthrax in order to help limit the use of antibiotics and prevent the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease (Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/24). HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson told lawmakers that in the future, the CDC would "err on the side of caution" and treat postal employees who may have handled letters that contain anthrax, but added that health officials "made the best decisions they could" at the time. Thompson said, "when we find an outbreak ... we're going to start placing those individuals that need help and who have any kind of symptoms whatsoever on Cipro or some of the other antibiotics that also are able to treat anthrax" (Connolly/Weiss, Washington Post, 10/24). The New York Times reports that Thompson's decision to "take a more aggressive stance" against anthrax reverses CDC policy and marks a "departure from recent efforts by the Bush administration to calm Americans" about the danger posed by the letter sent to Daschle (New York Times, 10/24).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.