GAO: Health Officials Underestimated Risks to USPS Workers in Anthrax Attacks

Public health officials underestimated health risks when letters containing anthrax spores were handled in U.S. Postal Service facilities in 2001, according to a report last week from the Government Accountability Office, formerly called the Government Accounting Office.

The report also stated that the postal service's revised guidelines on how to respond to an anthrax attack need further revision.

In September and October 2001, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to news media personnel and to Sens. Tom Daschle, D-SD, and Patrick Leahy, D-VT.

The letters caused 22 cases of anthrax among the public and postal employees, five of them fatal. Nine postal employees at two facilities that processed the letters — in Trenton, NJ, and the Brentwood facility in Washington, DC — contracted anthrax. Two Brentwood employees died. The GAO review focused on the two facilities and three others: processing and distribution centers in West Palm Beach, FL; Wallingford, CT; and New York City's Morgan Mailing Facility.

The report said the USPS relied on public health agencies to assess the risks to its employees. The agencies deemed the risks minimal. It was not until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that several postal employees had anthrax that two post offices were closed, in Hamilton, NJ, and the Brentwood location, 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.”

The report said that after the anthrax attacks, the USPS twice revised its guidance to address circumstances it faced in responding to anthrax.

But the GAO said the most recent guidance, issued in December 2003: does not define some key terms, including those that would trigger a decision to evacuate a facility; includes some outdated references that could cause confusion during a future response; and does not address certain issues, such as what steps would be taken during the interval between a diagnosis of anthrax in a postal employee and confirmation of the disease.

Postal service spokesman Gerry McKiernan said “we're gratified that the GAO acknowledged that the safety of our employees and customers was foremost in our mind. We did indeed rely heavily on medical authorities. Our expertise is moving mail, not medical diagnosis.

“You have to appreciate that in October 2001 the question of how to deal with an anthrax attack was untested waters. There was a lot of searching about as to what to do and how to do it right.”

Last month, the USPS issued its own report that said repeat testing for anthrax was unnecessary in facilities decontaminated following the 2001 anthrax attacks. The USPS worked on that report with federal, health, safety and security agencies.

The USPS is installing anthrax detection equipment in mail handling facilities nationwide.

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