Information miscues send a `message of confusion'

Public officials say they are trying best in crisis, learning from mistakes

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 18, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

As fearful Americans await word on the threat of anthrax, they have looked to government and law enforcement officials for critical information. But the bioterrorism scare has rattled the Capitol to such an extent that they don't always get it.

The latest miscue on the public information front came yesterday morning when House Speaker Dennis Hastert told reporters that anthrax spores had gotten into the Capitol's ventilation system "and [are] going through the tunnels and into the system of those buildings." Hours later, authorities said no spores were in the ventilation.

Hastert's remarks touched off a new wave of fear, after Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had said the previous day that the anthrax on a letter mailed to his office was potent and made by someone who knew what he was doing.

Some worry that misinformation can promote public panic and undermine confidence in national leaders at a critical time. The issue has been percolating on the anthrax front ever since U.S. Health Secretary Tommy G. Thompson called the first incident in Florida "an isolated case" that victim Robert Stevens may have contracted on a hiking trip.

Stevens died of pulmonary anthrax after having inhaled spores possibly sent through the mail to the Boca Raton tabloid newspaper where he worked. Similar anthrax-laden letters have surfaced in Washington and New York.

"It's real important for our national leaders to project confidence, poise and to practice the same advice that they're giving, which is to not panic," said Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in trauma. "Right now, they're projecting a message of confusion, and that's not a good antidote for our national fear."

Government officials say they are doing the best that they can during a time of unprecedented crisis, noting that they will learn from their own mistakes. Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, the only physician in the Senate, said yesterday that there will always be rapidly changing information as leaders try to keep the public apprised of daily developments in the complex issue of bioterrorism.

"Let me just say that you don't have all the answers at any one point in time; it's evolving," Frist said at a news conference. "And based on the information that comes tomorrow morning or the next day, it will be changing, so get used to that."

For Butterworth, who awoke yesterday to hear confusing accounts on television of the Capitol being closed down, the learning-curve excuse does little to quell his worry.

"The heads of our country aren't supposed to have learning experiences," he said. "This is not a time when we can afford them."

Others suggest that the government, even with a few mistakes thrown in, has done well to keep the panic level down. Throughout many briefings by a host of federal agencies, authorities have repeatedly stressed some basic points clearly aimed at relieving worry: anthrax is not contagious; antibiotics are highly effective against it; and an army of public health officials is ready to act fast.

"There has been a lot of good information out there from the government, and I think that's kept people from being too panicky," said Patricia E. Erickson, associate professor of sociology and director of the criminal justice program at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.

Among the most confusing government accounts of the anthrax threat is that of Ernesto Blanco, a mailroom attendant who works in the same building Stevens did. Health officials said he had been hospitalized with pneumonia - even after it was determined that he had been exposed to anthrax. Only Monday did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Palm Beach County Health Department say that he, in fact, had inhalation anthrax.

Blanco's own family has expressed frustration with the situation, saying that doctors at times have described the case as pneumonia with signs of anthrax exposure, while at other times describing it as anthrax.

For several weeks, Florida was where much of the government's information campaign on anthrax was being staged, with droves of anxious reporters waiting to hear information from law enforcement and medical experts. But state health officials initially handling the investigation appeared confused.

By Oct. 8, the day health officials quarantined the American Media Inc. building where Blanco and Stevens worked, dozens of journalists from all over the world had converged on West Palm Beach. News conferences were hastily announced, only to be canceled by officials a few minutes before they were to begin. State Health Department officials routinely referred questions to the FBI, which in turn suggested that journalists call the health officials for answers.

Hastert said such chaotic situations are inevitable amid the first investigation of this kind. Part of the problem, he said, is that information has been hard to come by for everyone.

"It really doesn't matter where this bacteria came from, where this anthrax came from. The system is the same," he said. "We've got people we need to respond to. There are questions to be answered about a disease that nobody in this room, nobody listening, has ever seen in the United States. Most physicians have not seen this. And so you're seeing this play out before your eyes."

Sun staff writer Michael Stroh contributed to this article.

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