Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2001 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan 5762
Such was the scene when House leaders decided to shut down the House of Representatives in the face of an anthax scare, while the mail carriers who handled the anthrax-laden envelopes were told to keep working.
"WIMPS" is how a now-famous New York Post headline described the House leaders. As it turned out, the House leaders had been told by Senate leaders that the Senate was going to close, too. The senators later changed their minds without so much as a "Sorry, guys," to their House brethren.
But while crews in hazardous-material space suits cleaned anthrax out of the Capitol, and congressional accusations of blame and cowardice pointed every which way, the postal workers who handle Congress' mail kept right on working - and worrying.
Everybody at the sorting center on Brentwood Road in the northwest section of city knew that the letter that started the city's anthrax scare must have come through their system.
On Oct. 15, when the letter with anthrax spores turned up in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, the senator's office was immediately quarantined. The Capitol's mail system was shut down. Public tours were suspended. Fifty people, most of them aides to the senator, were prescribed the antibiotic Cipro while they were tested for anthrax exposure.
But what about the postal workers who sort Congress' mail on Brentwood Road? They were told to relax.
They were not tested. The main center was not closed. Their work went on without interruption.
Ah, neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of anthrax scares shall stay these dutiful civil servants from processing the mail, while Congress goes home for the weekend.
Then came Oct. 22. A week after spores were released in Daschle's office, authorities reported that two Brentwood Station postal workers had died and two others were infected with pulmonary, or inhalation, anthrax, the deadliest form of the disease.
And why had postal officials not tested their workers sooner? Ah, they were following the advice that we all have been told to follow from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC guidelines said that testing was not necessary "until there was an evidence chain that indicated there was anthrax present in the facility."
The House didn't wait for an evidence chain. They fled. Any other response might be "stupid," House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said.
At the same time, postal workers at Brentwood continued to work while postal officials tested the facility on Oct. 18, followed by CDC tests on Oct. 19.
By then, the first of two Trenton, N.J., postal workers was found to have skin anthrax. Still, no alert was sounded for individual postal workers in Washington to be tested.
It was only after the first infected Brentwood employee was identified Oct. 21 after he went to the hospital with flu-like symptoms that officials had reason to believe the building was contaminated, according to a Postal Service spokeswoman. Only then were more than 2,000 Washington postal workers asked to report for tests and treatment with antibiotics.
The CDC advice that the Postal Service followed is the same advice that was followed by the Florida media company where the first mailed-anthrax death occurred.
It is also the same advice that most informed companies are following in the wake of Sept. 11 as we try to avoid letting the terrorists - whomever they may be - freak us out.
While the military side of government was gearing up for combat, the domestic side was still trying to get its act together. They're still trying. Meanwhile, the mail must get through.
Terrorism has given us Americans new reasons to appreciate the folks who wear uniforms to work. Mail carriers are heroes, too, when they make personal sacrifices to serve the public. They shouldn't have to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Through it all a disturbing question haunts the American people: Can we trust our government to handle this crisis?
Sure, we can always trust our government to handle the surprise it ran into last time. But to rebuild public confidence, our leaders need to show they can handle the surprises we might run into in the
10/23/01: Terrorists threaten urban recovery, too