October 15, 2001

Anthrax Scare Hits New York

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For the first time in over 50 years in the U.S., human cases of the bacteria commonly called anthrax are now part of the nation’s consciousness, according to CNN.com. Cases of anthrax have added to the already tense environment the country finds itself in, including the Cornell University campus.

“It’s scary,” said Marianne Drowne ’03, summing up the fears that many Cornellians have been dealing with since news of one death and numerous cases of the disease in both Florida and New York State.

“I don’t think anyone right now is doing business as usual,” said Linda Grace-Kobas, director of the Cornell News Service.

Diverting their attention to their own possible contamination scares, people are looking to local health and safety institutions such as those at Cornell to verify facts and fiction about anthrax.

One University employee found himself concerned after receiving a suspicious letter about two weeks ago and contacted Cornell University Police (CUPD) and Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) to investigate the matter.

According to Sharon Dittman, associate director of Gannett: Cornell University Health Services, most of these scares have been only that.

“He had gotten a strange package. He didn’t think anything of it at first,” Grace-Kobas said.

The employee, whose name will not be released due to patient confidentiality, is being treated with antibiotics but only as a precaution.

“He’s being treated more out of concern, not for treatment for the disease. [His treatment] is not because it was suspected that he actually had anthrax,” Dittman said.

Sarah Malone ’03, who worked in the same University lab as the affected employee, witnessed how closely he dealt with their mail and was troubled by news of his possible contamination. “He handles all incoming mail. [When we found out] everyone was really worried. There’s not much you can do except to be safe,” she said.

Also, a student residing in Clara Dickson Hall contacted the CUPD for examination of an envelope that may have been tampered with, according to Dittman. She notes that the CUPD is currently investigating the report.

These worries of anthrax contamination has spread valid concern to area businesses, including Cornell and Ithaca post offices causing them to step up security in hopes of preventing the bacteria from affecting their staff, according to The Ithaca Journal.

Grace-Kobas notes how Cornell Mail Service employees, who handle around 1,000 pieces of mail every week, are following procedures outlined by the EHS, CUPD and local and state health officials in order to identify and reduce their risk of exposure to anthrax spores in case the problem arises.

“Everyone on campus should be alert,” Grace-Kobas added.

In an effort to alert the Cornell community to the reality of this bacteria and its actual threat to the area, the University-Alert e-mailed a report last Saturday to most students and faculty, detailing the facts about anthrax and outlining prevention measures.

In his letter to Cornell students, faculty and staff, director of EHS Andy Garcia-Rivera wrote: “I urge all members of the Cornell community to be extremely vigilant and careful in handling mail both on campus and in your homes. We are paying very close attention to national reports and are taking this issue very seriously. We will investigate any suspicious envelopes and packages immediately after they are reported to Cornell Police.”

Although the University will take measures to inform and protect the campus, Garcia-Rivera reports in the e-mail that Cornell itself is not at an increased risk for the threat of anthrax.

“At this time, we do not believe there is a threat to the campus community or individuals as a result of this incident,” Garcia-Rivera said.

Gannett is also taking any reports they get from students and staff very seriously and intends to investigate them through connections with area health organizations. Dittman emphasizes that while stress levels may be high, students should remember that Gannett is well equipped to handle these health concerns.

“Students should know that the campus is well-organized to respond to this type of health issue. Because most students come to Gannett for their primary health care, Gannett is in a good position to recognize patterns of illness, an important strategy in public health. We prepared ourselves with information about bioterrorism agents, symptoms of exposure, individual patient needs and public health concerns,” Dittman said.

Across the country, serious health concerns have also multiplied as the number of people affected by the contamination in Florida and New York grows.

To date, one employee at American Media Services based in Florida has died due to the disease and two others have tested positive. In New York City, a “Nightly News with Tom Brokaw” employee also tested positive for a different strain of the bacteria. She is now reported in good health, according to the Associated Press.

When Judith Miller, an international terrorism reporter at The New York Times disclosed that she had opened a letter where a “white substance” emitted from it and covered her, the news organization responded by temporarily evacuating their offices. This caused the Times’ paper to be unusually thin that day, according to the Associated Press.

In New York, three more employees were also tested and found negative for the bacteria.

Prof. Stephen Winans, microbiology stressed that there are several forms of this bacteria and that each is not contagious and can be cured with early detection and antibiotics. He emphasized the importance of promoting education about the disease among the community.

“Anthrax is a disease primarily of domesticated animals and rarely of humans,” Winans said. “It’s caused by a bacterium called Bacillus anthracis that normally lives in the soil. This bacterium can form a small cell type called a spore. These spores can be inhaled and the bacterial spore can resume growing in the lung causing a pneumonic form of anthrax. The spores can also invade the body through a scratch in the skin, causing a “cutaneous” form, which usually remains localized and creates a characteristic boil that is rarely fatal. It can also be acquired by ingestion of undercooked foods.”

Each type is accompanied with different ailments including flu-like symptoms and lethargy for the inhaled form, nausea and vomiting for the digested form and a rash for the cutaneous form. The “Nightly News” victim contracted the almost non-fatal cutaneous form.

Winans said that because the qualities of this bacteria make it very difficult to affect large groups of people at one time we, as a community, may have less to worry about than we understand. However, he also notes that because of the bacteria’s long harvesting time it isn’t something that will go away too soon.

“Unlike other cell types, spores can be dried without loss of viability, hence the ‘powder.’ Spores can be stored at room temperature for years, or even millennia, so they would be easy to transport by mail,” Winans said.

This ability for the spores to be transported through the mail has caused national health organizations to release guidelines for the handling of suspicious mail. These include not touching or opening any suspicious packages. If white powder is noticed, the proper precautions would call for the isolation of the package or letter, washing hands with warm water and calling the police immediately.

Although the Bush administration has yet to draw an official line toward a specific terrorist group, they are now adding funds to support bioterrorism defense, according to the Associated Press. Some Cornellians feel that this measure may be too late considering that this form of terrorism was possible all along.
“It’s always been a real threat. It was a threat even before the [Sept. 11th attacks]. What’s happening now doesn’t make it more or less likely,” said William Feldman ’03.

Dittman agrees that while the world is always vulnerable, people should know that they are not alone; resources are available to them.

“We want students to know that if they have any concerns that they can come to Gannett,” she said. “I think we need to work together as individuals and as a community to keep [these events] in perspective.”

Archived article by Carlos Perkins