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Is Oregon safer a year later? Not really

Last year's bioterrorism led to a few new rules at post office, hospitals

Nearly a year after a cluster of anthrax scares prompted fear of mailboxes nationwide, there is really only one question: Are we safer today?

Despite the passage of time, little more than planning has been done so far, and bioterrorism remains a threat for which Oregon has no ready answer.

Dr. Grant Higginson, state public health officer, said the problem is that health departments were asked to fight terrorism within existing budgets Ñ all the while still providing immunizations, family planning services, pest and rodent control, food handlers' licenses, information on lead poisoning, HIV prevention services and administration of smoke-free workplace laws. Among other duties.

Federal grant monies Ñ $12.5 million to be split among counties Ñ did not begin to arrive until June. 'We're only just hiring our first new staff now,' Higginson said.

Despite the passage of time:

• Oregon's ability to test suspicious substances remains about the same as a year ago.

• Oregon's ability to track the origins of suspicious outbreaks remains the same as a year ago.

• Oregon-based postal facilities have made few security changes since the initial anthrax scares a year ago.

• Few changes have been made to secure Oregon's open-air reservoirs.

But help is on the way.

The grant-funded hires comprise 74 people, 24 at the state level and 50 at the county level throughout the state, whose jobs will be focused on bioterrorism. They include epidemiologists, microbiologists, communications and information technology workers, and emergency management personnel.

While awaiting the arrival of the grant, the state concentrated on developing plans and spreading information on biological agents that could be made into weapons. Physicians' offices and public health departments were given data to help them distinguish between routine chickenpox and diseases such as smallpox, which have not been seen here in decades but can look similar at the outset.

The state also is now participating in a nationwide computer-based alert system that provides timely data when an outbreak is discovered. So far, the network isn't much more than an e-mail system, one most recently used to notify health departments of the progress of the West Nile virus. But soon, state officials say, it will develop into a reliable and rapid way to get emergency alerts to key people in every state.

Potential flood of patients

Hospitals also have been working on bioterrorism plans.

Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, for example, began a massive education campaign to ensure its staff was versed in hazardous biological and chemical agents. Then, officials said, the staff tackled a worst-case scenario: What if thousands were suddenly infected at the same time?

Kathy Ramey, emergency services manager for Providence Health System, said that because area hospitals are consistently at capacity, droves of new patients would constitute a logistical crisis.

Providence addressed it with plans for parking-lot triage, the use of tents and adjacent buildings for infected patients, portable decontamination showers in the event of a chemical attack and protective suits for medical personnel, she said.

Even so, hospital officials acknowledge that it's hard to prepare for an off-the-scale disaster. 'If something happened like the World Trade Center, no one is truly prepared for that,' said Larry Thomas, safety officer for Legacy Health System. 'But we would give high quality care; we would cope.'

Oregon Health & Science University, because of its controversial use of primates in research, already has had to deal with ecoterrorist threats to its facilities.

'You can close your gas station, your 7-Eleven, you can even close Wall Street for a week, but you cannot close a hospital,' said Dr. Christopher Richards, acute services chief for the hospital. 'We defend in place.' In the unlikely event of a partial evacuation or its opposite Ñ a flood of incoming patients Ñ OHSU has discussed logistics with the Portland Police Bureau and TriMet, he said.

New post office rules

One proven target, the U.S. mail system, has adopted security measures that remain in place, such as a ban on unauthorized personnel in sorting areas and specific procedures for handlers who sense something suspicious in a package.

Ron Anderson, customer relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service in Portland, said workers know to isolate mail that appears contaminated and to shut off ventilation systems to prevent a contaminant from spreading. The regional sorting facility in Northwest Portland, which serves the entire state, has had a hazardous materials expert on contract for years.

Within a month of the anthrax episodes, the Portland facility found itself with a package that was leaking a mysterious dust. 'You can't conclusively tell what a substance is; you have to send it for testing,' Anderson said. 'But in this case, an employee was able to peek inside the package and see that it was a packet of Kool-Aid that had been torn open.'

A year after the anthrax scares, only a small percentage of postal workers are still wearing masks and gloves although they remain available, Anderson said.

'I think they realize that it's a year later, only four incidents were documented and they were all on the East Coast and all were (pieces of mail) for high-level government representatives and media personalities. É We still need to be vigilant, but now we know what to look for. The gloves and masks were precautionary, before we knew what to look for.'