Anthrax hot line calls decline

Emergency crews get a break

health officials wait for flu

November 09, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

With no new anthrax cases reported in more than a week, health and emergency officials across the Baltimore area are reporting a sharp decrease in bioterrorism questions and scares.

The decline has allowed some counties' hazardous-materials crews, hit with a spate of frantic calls over the past month, to scale back response efforts.

"It is not so much a strain on our resources anymore," said Mike Maybin, a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman. "By just purely listening to the scanners, it will tell you the calls have decreased drastically."

In some cases, health officials are reporting a 90 percent decline in the number of calls to anthrax hot lines set up after the first cases were reported last month.

Still, officials remain wary and continue to urge the public to be alert for suspicious powders or symptoms that could signal exposure to the potentially deadly bacteria.

Though 17 people nationwide have contracted skin or inhalation anthrax since Oct. 3, when a Florida man was found to be gravely ill, no new confirmed cases have been reported since Oct. 31.

Officials think the number of calls has dropped recently because fewer anthrax-related reports have appeared in the media.

"In general, the more media coverage, the more calls we get," said Capt. Jim Korn, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Fire Department. "It definitely seems to go up and down with the extent at which it is right in front of the public eye."

A poll released yesterday by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation found that 57 percent of people surveyed are taking steps to protect themselves by doing things such as opening mail more carefully.

"Anthrax is still a public health concern," said Dr. Michelle A. Leverett, director of the Baltimore County Department of Health.

Leverett and other area health officials worry that the onset of flu season will spark an increase in calls to anthrax hot lines, which have been set up in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

"We may very well see an increase as we enter the flu season," Leverett said. "As you know, flulike symptoms can be seen with people who have anthrax. ... That is one reason we set up the hot line, to answer those calls."

The Baltimore County anthrax hot line, established Oct. 29, received an average of 38 calls a day last week. The number has dropped to 23 this week. Among the concerns reported by callers are white powder on mail and unusual bumps on their bodies, Leverett said.

Declines were more pronounced in counties closer to Washington, where several anthrax-tainted letters were received last month and two U.S. Postal Service workers died of anthrax.

In Anne Arundel County, the number of calls to the hot line declined from an average of more than 100 a day two weeks ago to six to 10 this week.

The Prince George's County Health Department hot line received 786 calls between Oct. 23 and Wednesday. This week, 31 calls have been received, said Pat Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the health department.

"I don't know if the initial wave of concern has ended, but the calls to the hot line are certainly down," Sullivan said.

Emergency officials say panicked calls to 911 centers also have dropped sharply.

Howard County police said they have received 362 anthrax-related calls since Oct. 7, including a high of 37 calls Oct. 23. Since last Friday, the average number of calls has dipped to fewer than 10 a day.

Division Chief John Scholz of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department said hazardous-materials crews were stretched thin when they were responding to up to 50 calls a day for suspicious packages or substances. Crews are now responding to 10 to 20 calls a day, he said.

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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