Anthrax scare gives workers trying test

Carroll tax employees undergo 5-hour hassle

October 30, 2001|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

At 2:45 p.m. Oct. 22, an employee at the Carroll County tax office felt a white, gritty powder on her fingers after she opened an envelope that contained a water bill payment but had no return address.

That was the beginning of a trying experience that lasted five hours for a dozen county employees. They were quarantined in their first-floor offices in the County Office Building in Westminster. Tape was stripped over all cracks of doorjambs and window frames to keep the powder - feared to be anthrax - from seeping out. The building was evacuated at 4:15 p.m.

About 6 p.m., employees were told to call relatives and have them bring a change of clothes to the building. Most were ordered to shower - to decontaminate - and they couldn't put on what they had been wearing. Those who couldn't reach relatives were given hospital surgical scrubs to wear until families arrived with clothes.

Shortly after showering and changing, they were allowed to leave, the last person heading home about 8 p.m. All were given Cipro, an antibiotic to fight anthrax.

The incident illustrates how police and volunteer firefighters in the small city of Westminster handled an anthrax scare, a trial few people would have imagined here two months ago. And it showed how trying such a response can be for workers.

"Most of them were upset with the lack of communication," said Eugene C. Curfman, the county comptroller who oversees the tax office and was quarantined with his deputy and 10 employees.

While emergency workers followed FBI guidelines for dealing with suspected bioterrorism in three incidents - Oct. 16 in Finksburg's post office; Oct. 19 at Carroll County Courthouse; and Oct. 22 at the tax office - county and city emergency and health officials have met at least three times to assess response and promise to do better next time - if there is a next time.

"The odds are in Carroll County, you are not a target, but if you're going to err, you want to err on the side of caution, and that's what we did," Westminster Police Chief Roger G. Joneckis said.

After the letter was found, the tax office closed for a day until it was determined by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's laboratory in Baltimore that the powdery substance was not anthrax. Workers weren't all that bothered about showering and changing. No one thought taping the doors and windows was a bad idea. But they wished they had been told more about what action authorities were taking.

Seeking information

Workers wanted to know when they could go home. They wondered if the substance was anthrax, Curfman said. Even Curfman, a 34-year volunteer firefighter and former president of the county Volunteer Firemens' Association, couldn't learn anything from buddies on the outside.

He hopes meetings such as the ones held last week will serve "to kind of make sure if it ever happens again, that there's good policies and that they take into consideration ... the employees, to have some feelings as to keeping them informed."

At least one hurdle authorities faced last week stemmed from getting the proper people on site. They had to wait while volunteer firefighters trained to deal with hazardous materials were called to the scene to collect and check for powder after the letter was triple-sealed in plastic and removed by Westminster police in an empty 5-gallon metal paint bucket.

"We don't want to blow this thing out of proportion," said Leon M. Fleming, liaison for Carroll County Volunteer Fire Service. "These are volunteers, leaving their jobs to go to every call." Authorities want to ensure they are calling volunteer firefighters only when necessary.

Carroll County Volunteer Fire Chiefs Association decided last week to change procedures so that police will decide whether to call on the small core of volunteers trained to handle hazardous materials, Fleming said.

In a related move, Larry L. Leitch, the county's top health officer, said he would keep a staff member on call 24 hours a day to assist in case of another anthrax scare. The department also will transport suspicious material to Baltimore for testing.

"I think next time we'll do better," said R. Patrick Hill, executive assistant to the county commissioners, who witnessed the events of Oct. 22. "A lot of people think you should have all the answers the first time, and you just don't."

In the tax office scare, "We just went through the steps," said Kevin R. Utz, spokesman for Westminster Fire and Hose Company No. 1, which responded to the call and ordered the decontamination showers. "That's why we went the whole nine yards, not like the courthouse. If you listen to the national news, the government's doing the same thing: We're learning each time."

In the earlier courthouse incident - the discovery Oct. 19 of powder, presumed to be cleanser, in a bathroom at the courthouse - the risk was quickly determined to be low. No one was exposed, Joneckis said. The powder was not anthrax, authorities said.

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