Islanders monitor for anthrax

Langley Post Office employee Linda Ritta places mail in boxes early this week. Postal employees are watching for suspicious letters or packages that might contain anthrax spores. - Matt Johnson
Langley Post Office employee Linda Ritta places mail in boxes early this week. Postal employees are watching for suspicious letters or packages that might contain anthrax spores.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Until anthrax cases start showing up in Washington, state and county health and law enforcement officials are taking a “wait and see” attitude toward people worried about infection.

On advice from the state Health Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Island County Sheriff’s Office and county health department will collect samples of suspicious substances suspected to contain anthrax spores, but they will not test them unless there is proof of infections in the state.

Anthrax bacteria and spores apparently sent through the mail have been found in New York, Florida and Nevada. One man has died from the disease.

Dr. Roger Case, Island County health officer, said Monday his agency is balancing prudent investigation practices against preventing panic. He said his department is monitoring reports of suspicious mail in the county and reports of possible anthrax infection.

So far, a South Whidbey pediatrician and Whidbey General Hospital have had contact with patients who wrongly believed they may have been suffering from the disease.

“There have been some patients very concerned about having been exposed,” Case said.

That concern is at its highest at area post offices. Langley Postmaster Jack Harrington said his staff is being cautious, within reason. If a piece of mail looks suspicious, it will be isolated until it can be examined by law officers. So far, his office has not had to set aside any mail for this reason, nor have any employees felt the need to use the rubber gloves that Harrington purchased “just in case.”

He hopes his staff’s luck holds.

“I’m thankful we live where we do,” he said.

Port Townsend’s post office was closed Monday due to an anthrax scare. Tests showed the substance in Port Townsend was not anthrax or any other hazardous material.

Anthrax vaccinations are not available to the general public — most of the vaccine is used by the military. The disease is treatable with a 30- to 60-day course of antibiotics if caught early.

Case said the anthrax spores and bacteria are found in soil and can be brought into the body through an open wound. However, he said, this occurs only rarely. No cases of the disease had been reported in the United States for the past 25 years until last week’s terrorist-related incidents.

As worrisome as the disease itself is the mayhem it could spawn. Case said the state or county could see a number of events related to the anthrax terror cases, include threats against schools or the attempted spread of other pathogens.

Whidbey Island law enforcement agencies have investigated several calls about strange mail. Langley Police Chief Bob Herzberg said his agency has investigated four anthrax-related calls. The Island County Sheriff’s Office has also received its share of calls.

“We are actually investigating a couple of cases,” Sheriff Mike Hawley said Monday.

Anyone receiving mail they believe may contain anthrax spores should call 911.

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