WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., heard testimony Wednesday about the breakdown of communications between government agencies regarding the anthrax contamination of postal workers and the U.S. mail.
At the second in a two-part series of hearings titled ?Terrorism Through the Mail: Protecting Postal Workers and the Public,? health officials from the U.S. Army and the Centers for Disease Control described the steps they took and the advice they gave following the October 15 exposure of members of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle?s staff when an aide opened an anthrax-laced letter.
?These hearings have been informative but also troubling in many ways,? Lieberman said. ?The question is whether the public health system is truly prepared to address the unique threats of bioterrorism.?
Major General John Parker, commanding officer at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick said his office was aware the evening of October 15 of the virulent nature of the anthrax contained in the Daschle letter. But Dr. Mitchell Cohen, a witness for the Centers of Disease Control, which was advising the Postal Service on how to respond to the crisis, operated for nearly a week on the assumption the anthrax was of similar quality to the anthrax that had been sent to media outlets in New York and Florida, but which did not immediately make postal workers ill.
On October 18, when contamination was discovered at the Dirksen mail room, it became clear that the so-called Daschle anthrax was capable of escaping from an unopened letter. Based on the advice of health officials, the Postal Service did not close the main postal processing center at Brentwood, nor did it begin testing workers, until October 21.
Lieberman said there needs to be better coordination between federal agencies, between federal and state and local governments and within the health system nationwide.
?The various agencies within the federal government that have responsibility in crises like these need to be reading from the script and speaking with one voice,? Lieberman said.
Lieberman announced that said Governmental Affairs Committee staff would develop a time line tracing the still unfolding events of the anthrax attack using the U.S. mail.
?It?s clear the federal government has much to do in order to better organize itself,? Lieberman said, ?to prepare us to better meet the next germ warfare challenge directed against us.?