|As Anthrax Hysteria Fades,
Counties Shut Down Bioterror Hotlines|
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 2001 University of Maryland College of
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