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As Anthrax Hysteria Fades, Counties Shut Down Bioterror Hotlines

By Carolyn Taschner
Capital News Service
Thursday, Nov. 8, 2001

WASHINGTON - Just weeks after they set up special hotlines and clinics to handle an expected flood of anthrax fears, some county health departments are already wrapping up the services, as calls and visits have fallen to a trickle.

Montgomery County will shut the doors of its Anthrax Assessment Center and suspend its hotline Saturday. The center had seen 400 people and fielded 3,276 phone calls by Thursday, but by then the rate of calls had fallen from as many as 350 a day down to only 40 or 50 a day. 

Prince George's County turned over operation of its anthrax hotline to a community nonprofit agency on Monday and plans to close the service for good on Nov. 30. But it could be closed as early as Nov. 16 if call volume remains low: The hotline fielded only eight calls Thursday. 

"Early this week ... we recognized that there is no new incident, so the fear and the anxiety and the uncertainty in the public is waning," said Buddy Ey, who oversees the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management. 

Officials in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties also noted a "sharp decrease" in calls, but they planned no change in their anthrax information services, which consisted largely of a phone line in the counties' infectious disease offices where a nurse or nurse-practitioner could answer questions. 

State officials, meanwhile, are going in the opposite direction: While Montgomery and Prince George's counties are winding down, the state is gearing up. 

The state Department of Mental Health and Hygiene expects to have a hotline "up very soon," to answer questions and provide information about several potential bioterrorism threats. "Ours will be different, because it will be automated and provide extensive information about several potential bioterrorism threats, not just anthrax," said department spokesman J.B. Hanson.

He said he expected the state's hotline to be around for "quite some time" because questions and fears about bioterrorism are "something that is not going away." 

But the questions and fear appear to be going away in the Washington suburbs. Both Montgomery and Prince George's counties set up their services on Oct. 23, the day after the first of two Brentwood postal workers died of inhalation anthrax. But as the news coverage of the issue cooled, so did the number of calls to the hotlines. 

Ey said the spikes in call volume followed major media events. "When cutaneous anthrax was hot in the news, everybody had rashes," Ey said. "When inhalation anthrax was hot in the news, everybody has upper respiratory problems."

Montgomery County's walk-in clinic had a nurse and a social worker on staff at all times. Patients were asked a series of questions to determine if the were at risk for exposure, and many of those connected with contaminated areas were given temporary supplies of antibiotics. 

The hotlines mostly dispensed information, but they also referred calls to the authorities, where appropriate. "If they have a real concern, or may have come into contact, we tell them to call the police," said Yolanda Littlejohn, office manager for Community Crisis Services Inc., which has volunteered to handle the Prince George's County calls. 

Operators in the two counties spent much of their time trying to calm people down, including a 9-year-old girl who thought she had anthrax because she saw white powder in her bed, and several others who received an advertisement addressed to a "Happy American." The letter turned out to be a legitimate promotion from an alarm company. 

Not all the calls regarded anthrax. Littlejohn said one caller Thursday thought a man praying next to his car was Osama bin Laden. 

Ey said the biggest problem was fear. "Everybody had packages and everybody had anthrax, as far as they were concerned," Ey said of the callers. "We didn't have a disaster in Montgomery County, we had an information issue."

Copyright 2001 University of Maryland College of Journalism

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