WASHINGTON – Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley said the city’s response to a Wednesday anthrax threat was a good test of preparedness that exposed some weaknesses but overall showed the city’s plan to be sound.
The mayor said non-emergency city departments should have been receiving updated information more frequently Wednesday to avoid misinformation that could have caused a panic. O’Malley also said there should have been a message posted on the city’s cable station to alert the public.
“No system is strong enough,” O’Malley said at a National Foundation for Infectious Diseases forum on bioterrorism Friday.
But, he said, there was a lot of cooperation and everyone remained calm.
Before Sept. 11, the city’s emergency response teams had been trained to deal with bioterrorism, but since then officials have implemented specific plans to prepare for and respond to a bioterrorist attack.
City emergency officials swung into action Wednesday after the FBI said it received a threat that an anthrax attack would take place at 1:15 p.m.
“We had a really good experience in terms of cooperation,” Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson said of this week’s response.
Beilenson said he was able to talk to all 10 city hospitals within 10 minutes and that officials also communicated with pharmacies so they knew what antibiotics were available.
Germ weapons are colorless, odorless and tasteless, so the first signs of a biological attack could look like a common cold. The first symptoms could be a sore throat, a cough or a mild fever.
“Because these types of attacks aren’t catastrophic explosions,” O’Malley said city officials are watching public health “like a hawk” through a citywide bioterrorism surveillance system.
With that system, health officials monitor data on symptoms reported by ambulances and emergency rooms. They receive elementary school absentee reports, and animal control reports all dead dogs and cats picked up in a day. Some drug stores also report the number of over-the-counter drugs they sell in a day.
“It’s real-time data,” O’Malley said. “We’re looking for uncommonly high numbers of common symptoms.”
Beilenson said the health department has taken an extra measure since Wednesday’s threat, assigning an epidemiologist or nurse to go in to each emergency room daily to make sure there is nothing “odd going on.” He could not say if that would become a permanent part of the surveillance plan.
O’Malley also noted Friday that the FBI has shared a 230-member watch list with local police, and that such a partnership might not have happened in the past. But the city would still like to see more cooperation between the federal and local law enforcement agencies.
Before Wednesday’s threat, the city also faced a chemical accident in July when a CSX train derailed and burned for five days in a tunnel under downtown. O’Malley said that incident, along with the anthrax threat, helped to keep city officials aware and ready to respond to other emergencies.
O’Malley said the city has been receiving about 60 to 100 calls a day from people concerned about anthrax, including one man who was concerned “about the white powder on his cherries.” Should one of those prove to be an actual anthrax case, he said, Wednesday’s threat showed that the city is ready to respond.
“In all honesty, it was way smoother than I thought it would be,” Beilenson said. “If, as we think so far, nothing actually did happen, it was a great dry run.”