U.S. Postal Service Underestimated Risks of Anthrax Attacks, GAO Finds
U.S. Postal Service officials took action to protect postal employees in the 2001 anthrax attacks, but they should clarify guidelines for their response to future attacks, according to a Government Accountability Office report released on Friday, the Washington Post reports (Fernandez, Washington Post, 9/11).
The report focused on USPS mail facilities in Hamilton, N.J., and Washington, D.C., and three others, where postal employees handled at least four letters contaminated with anthrax in September and October 2001. The letters resulted in 22 anthrax infections among postal employees and the public that led to five deaths.
According the report, USPS in 2001 relied on public health officials to determine the health risks of the letters for postal employees; public health officials underestimated the risks, which resulted in the delay of medical help for employees, the report said. USPS closed the New Jersey and Washington, D.C., mail facilities only after CDC confirmed that several postal employees were infected with anthrax, according to the report.
The report said, "The response to anthrax contamination revealed several lessons, the most important of which is that agencies need to choose a course of action that poses the least risk of harm when considering actions to protect people from uncertain and potentially life-threatening health risks" (de la Cruz, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 9/9).
USPS officials "need to clarify the actions they'd take under certain kinds of scenarios," Mark Goldstein, GAO director of physical infrastructure issues, said, adding, "What would they do when they get preliminary evidence of anthrax contamination? Or if a postal employee is diagnosed with anthrax? They still haven't clarified some of that guidance."
Henry Pankey, USPS vice president of emergency preparedness, wrote in a letter included in the GAO report that "we would have made some different decisions had the present state of medical and scientific knowledge been available to us in October of 2001" (Washington Post, 9/11).
USPS officials said that the agency has begun to install anthrax detection equipment in mail facilities nationwide "in hopes of detecting any future attack early and preventing spread of the disease" and that they would continue to revise guidelines to improve their response to future anthrax attacks, the AP/Sun reports (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 9/9). GAO compiled the 77-page report at the request of Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) (Washington Post, 9/11). The report is available online. Note: You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the report.