AG News Briefing With HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson
THOMPSON: Please be seated.
Thank you all for coming this afternoon. I, first, appreciate this opportunity to have the attorney general come over to the Department of Health and Human Services.
I'm sorry that it's under these kind of circumstances, but I'm very appreciative that he's here.
Also appreciative that he has brought with him some representatives from the Postal Department, which he will introduce a little bit later.
And I would like to introduce Scott Lillibridge, who's a special assistant for bioterrorism to me, and of course he's a doctor from CDC, who's up here helping me on bioterrorism issues; along with Mitch Cohen, who's also from CDC, and he is working full-time with the Department of Justice.
I'd like to issue a very short statement, and then I'd like to introduce the attorney general.
Preliminary testing done at CDC, along with clinical diagnosis, indicates that an NBC employee who works on the third floor at 30 Rockefeller Plaza has developed cutaneous Anthrax, which is a bacterial infection of the skin.
This patient has been treated with antibiotics and, I want to make sure that everybody understands, is doing very well.
Anthrax is not contagious from one person to another. And I want to reiterate that because there's so much speculation about that. ``Can I get it from somebody that has it?'' Anthrax is not contagious from one person to another.
Cutaneous skin Anthrax is different from inhalation Anthrax, which is the type of Anthrax that resulted in the death of one person in Palm Beach, Florida.
A cutaneous infection due to Anthrax can occur if the Anthrax spores are in contact with an area of the skin that is not intact, such as a cut or sore.
The cutaneous form responds well to antibiotics if treatment is started soon after the symptoms appear, such as in this case they did. So if you have any information out there, and you've got a small lesion that's dark and colored that's itchy, make sure you contact your doctor.
The third floor and selected areas of 30 Rockefeller Plaza have been cordoned off, and environmental samples are being taken.
The risk of exposure is greatest for the few people who handled the subject matter or those in the immediate area at that time. Nevertheless, as a precaution, all the people who worked on the third floor are being given antibiotics. And we have sent the antibiotics up there.
And I also want you to know that the antibiotics work well. And it's not only Cipro, it's doxycycline and it's penicillin.
CDC is supplementing a New York City Health Department team of epidemiologists investigating this case. CDC has provided the personnel and is supporting New York with laboratory assistance. We have had CDC epidemiologists up in New York ever since September 11. We had 55 up there, and I believe we have 35 up there as of today.
Once again, as you can see, when a case arises, we act very quickly. We take the precautions, and we want to make sure that everybody understands we put public health protections number one, first. We give medicine to those who need it, as well as the specialists and those who may be in immediate risk.
Again, we stress that Anthrax is not contagious. It cannot be transmitted from one individual to another. People should not hoard the antibiotics, including Cipro. There is no need. We have enough antibiotics to get to the people who need it.
And as the president said again last night, don't be intimidated. The terrorists want to scare us, they want it to affect our way of life and see us living in fear. We cannot let them succeed. As the president says, we need to live our lives, be more aware but go about our business.
The public needs to understand that our public health system is on a heightened sense of alert for any diseases that may come from any kind of biological attack or any kind of terrorist attack. We are responding very aggressively to all these individual cases, which has no connection whatsoever at this point in time to any terrorist attacking.
We are going to error on the side of caution and take steps to ensure safety.
And people ask me, what should they do.
THOMPSON: If you see anything suspicious, contact your local law enforcement
officials. If there is any powder that's sent to you in an envelope or package that's suspicious, give it to your local law enforcement, contact your local health department.
If you have any kind of skin lesions that are growing and that are itchy and are dark in color, contact your doctor, local health officials. Or if you have any kind of flu-like symptoms that are causing severe inhalation problems, contact your local doctor and also your local health department.
Everybody is on alert, and everybody knows what they're supposed to do.
And get us the samples at CDC so we can run them, which we have in this case. And we got notified at 3:25 this morning that this sample tested positively. And we moved immediately, as we will in all of these cases.And CDC is doing an excellent job, working in great cooperation with the Department of Justice, whose doing an exemplary job.
And with that, it gives me a great deal of honor and privilege to introduce an individual who every American knows is doing an outstanding job, my friend and the leading law enforcement official of the country, John Ashcroft.
ASHCROFT: Thank you, Secretary Thompson. It's an honor to be here with you.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched a separate criminal investigation to find out the source of the Anthrax in the New York City case.
The Bureau is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control, the New York City Health Department and with postal inspectors.
ASHCROFT: At this time, the source of the Anthrax is being investigated and has not yet been determined.
We are investigating a piece of mail from September the 25th that may have transmitted the Anthrax. No conclusions have been reached at this time.
At this time, we do not have any evidence that links the Anthrax case in Florida to the New York matter.
The FBI offices are coordinating their efforts to bring their full investigative resources to bear.
We will continue to work closely with other agencies to take a series of precautions.
The area will be sealed, it will be tested. Affected individuals, employees that are from the area will be tested and will be given antibiotics.
We are taking these actions out of an abundance of caution to give the maximum protection to individuals who may have been exposed to Anthrax.
I want to stress, as the secretary so appropriately did, that Anthrax is not contagious and is imminently treatable if detected early.
Let me just indicate that if individuals receive mail of which they are suspicious, they should not open it, they should not shake it, they should leave the area of the mail, call the local law enforcement authorities, public health authorities, so that the mail can be appropriately dealt with.
We have received many threats about suspicious substances in the mail recently and over the past several years. We deal with them very seriously. However, most of them are hoaxes.
This has been a problem for quite some time.
A little over a year ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued this advisory, which suggests to people what they should do in the event they receive a suspicious letter or package.
ASHCROFT: And it says, ``Handle with care. Don't shake or bump. Isolate and look for indicators that would lead to what might be a problem. Don't open, smell or taste.
Treat as if suspect. Call 911, your local police, public safety and health authorities.''
And on this poster, there are a whole series of things that might indicate that the mail could be of suspect for a number of reasons: the absence of return addresses, the presence of some substances or the like, the protrusion of wires or things like that relating to the threats.
I'd just indicate this is sound advice. It's advice which we have been giving over the years in settings like this. And it is the kind of advice that we think it would be appropriate for individuals to follow in the current situation.
If I could just take a moment, I want to thank all of our partners--federal, state and local--for working so closely together. And the fact that CDC is represented at the heart of what we do in all these investigations is very important.
And so, the work of your department with us in what we do is of extremely great value to us.In situations where there may be an abuse of the mail, we are very pleased to welcome the expertise of the postal inspectors in the operations. And Ken Newman, who is--is it deputy postal inspector for the U.S. Postal Service?
KEN NEWMAN, DEPUTY CHIEF INSPECTOR, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: Deputy chief inspector.
ASHCROFT: Deputy chief inspector. I left out a very important word.
But we have worked together in curtailing in child pornography...
NEWMAN: Yes, sir.
ASHCROFT: ... with the Justice Department. We have a profound respect for the
postal inspectors. And I'm very pleased to introduce Ken at this time.
Thank you very much.
NEWMAN: Yes, my name is Ken Newman, and I'm the deputy chief postal inspector
I've been asked to come here and talk to you today about the United States mails and the United States postal system.
As you know, the United States Postal Service and our mail system is part of the fabric of our country. And I'm here to tell you that we will do everything that we can to ensure that it remains the safest and most efficient postal service in the world.
The postal service delivers 208 billion pieces of mail each year. Presently, up until this time, we have not ever seen any real incident, an incident therefore where actual biological hazards have been transmitted through the United States mails.
Having said that, I would also like to share with you some cautions and some words of advice that I would like to share with the public. It's very important that we exercise care in caution, both in our personal mail and in business mail.
Talking first about business mail, I would urge each business to work with their security department or security consultants to talk about establishing safe mailroom procedures.
Local postal inspectors, FBI agents and others are available to help in that effort.
As far as personal mail, again, like any citizen, I would urge you to exercise extreme caution.
Look for things which are out of place. Be very careful and cautious of what you receive. Make sure it is material from known correspondents, family members, people you expect mail from.
On the business side and the personal side, if you receive something that is out of place, it is something that is not something you were expecting or looks unusual, it doesn't hurt to make a phone call, to talk to the person listed on the return address to begin to do an investigation to determine if in fact this is something that is routine, just was not expected.
Postal inspectors around the country are part of the joint terrorism task forces with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agents, and we are ready to respond to any suspicious items.
We are also part of the newly formed attorney general's antiterrorism task forces. Law enforcement is teaming up and working very successfully together in this effort.
NEWMAN: I've been asked to talk about what someone should do if in fact they receive an item that appears to be suspicious and in fact they may have opened it.
We stress that you isolate the object. Again, in a good mailroom, a good environment, a safe mailroom, there should be an isolation area, an area where there is very limited traffic.
We urge you to make sure that no one else goes near that item. Anyone who has been near that item or handled it, you need to make sure that individual does not leave the area, that you record who that individual is and was, and what the circumstances were.
The items should be cordoned off and isolated. Anyone who has handled the item should very vigorously and carefully wash their hands. We want to make sure that at the appropriate time, the suspicious item is placed in a plastic bag.
It's very important to get the intervention of medical and law enforcement authorities, as the attorney general mentioned. The quickest way would be to dial 911.
Again, in your mailrooms and in your homes, it would be very easy for you to identify and locate those numbers and make sure that for local medical services and emergency services those numbers are readily available.
What constitutes a suspicious item? The attorney general mentioned a few of those items, I mentioneded a couple. I'll go over them again.
Something unexpected from someone unfamiliar to you. Something addressed to someone who is no longer with your organization or living at that address.
Items that have no return address or can't be verified as legitimate, as I mentioned earlier, through phone calls or other inquiries within your organization.
Items that are of an unusual weight, given their size, are lopsided or oddly shaped.
Many times suspicious items are marked with restrictive endorsements:
``personal,'' ``confidential,'' ``opened by this addressee only.''
They may also have protruding wires or stains or strange odors. It may show a city or state or a postmark that does not match the return address.
We also are responding around the country today with other law enforcement and folks in the medical community to numerous suspicious items. We take that quite seriously.
And as the attorney general mentioned, we want it put out a warning.
These are dangerous and serious times, and we take quite seriously those responses.
We do not want to overload our medical community and resources, and we do not want to overload law enforcement.
We will not tolerate, and we will prosecute, anyone who looks at this as an opportunity to settle grudges or transmit hoaxes, to try and intimidate our country.
We will not be intimidated in the postal service, as part of the fabric of our country.
THOMPSON: The attorney general and I will take a few questions, but the attorney general's got to go to another conference and I've got to go give a speech.
I'm sorry to say it's going to be relatively short.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, are you evaluating any other cases where you have a suspicion of Anthrax exposure? Obviously you've been working on this for some time.
Are there any other cases out there?
THOMPSON: We have not been working on this case that long. We received some of the powder two days ago at our laboratory. And we did not--have not completed the analysis of that powder as of yet.
The doctors sent in a piece of skin, and we took a biopsy on that skin.
And we found the bacteria in there, and it tested positive. And at 3:25, the analysis was given to Jeff Copeland, who called this department at 3:25. And we have been work on it since then.
QUESTION: Can either of you tell us anything...
THOMPSON: As of other cases, we are evaluating a lot of individuals that had nasal swabs taken down in Florida and so on. But we have no other positive identifications at this time.
QUESTION: If either of you could tell us about what's going on at the New York Times in New York, there's some suspicious package there.
ASHCROFT: I do not have information that I can give you regarding the situation in New York. I've seen on television a report that--but I have no information about New York.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about the September 25 letter that's being looked at at NBC? Are there any details, any identifying characteristics people might want to look for?
And also, this is now the second incident of Anthrax in a media organization.
Are there going to be any specific threats regarding media organizations or any reason to believe that they're being targeted by terrorists?
ASHCROFT: I cannot give you any information in addition to the information already given about the letter.
I do--I can recognize together with you that
this is the second person who works at a media organization that has developed a kind of Anthrax, but beyond that, I can't draw a conclusion.
QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, you said that investigations were separate criminal investigations. And at this point, there's no evidence linking the Florida and New York cases, but I assume that, at this point, you also can't rule that out.
Can you talk about where these investigations are and where they're leading, as far as you know?
ASHCROFT: Well, very clearly we're at the early stages of the investigation here.
And you are 100 percent correct to indicate that it would be inappropriate to draw conclusions based upon evidence which is not conclusive.
And while these are separate investigations, we want to have the investigations communicate with each other and be conversant with each other because it may be that we would see commonalities which would suggest that there--it may be that we would see commonalities--I'm not trying to suggest that there are.
But it's for those purposes that we have linked the separate investigations to learn if there should be further inquiry about whether or not they would be linked.
QUESTION: Can you tell us which strain of Anthrax this is? Is it the Iowa strain like in Florida? Is it a different strain altogether?
THOMPSON: The evaluations have not been completed. We don't know at this point in time, and there's been no confirmation that it's the same or different.
We can't say.
QUESTION: How common is cutaneous Anthrax?
THOMPSON: Quite common. I mean, Anthrax is not common at all, but cutaneous is probably more common than inhalation Anthrax, because you cut yourself on the skin or have a sore and the spores are able to get into it and fester and colonize there.
QUESTION: Is that what happened?
QUESTION: When will you know what strain it is?
THOMPSON: Hopefully as soon as the analysis is done. They're working on the analysis right now. It's going to take some time. You have to grow the bacteria and be able to determine it. And the small amount of powder that we received on Wednesday was not enough to grow much, as far as bacteria. They're still trying to grow the bacteria. The more powder you get, the faster you can grow the bacteria to make an analysis. So it depends upon the amount we get and when we get it to make that determination.
ASHCROFT: I might add that I don't believe we've determined yet that any can be grown from the powder. It may be that this powder is the source of the Anthrax; it may not be. And the tests are being conducted--I think that's correct...
THOMPSON: That's correct.
ASHCROFT: ... in order for that to be the case. So it--I just would add that.
QUESTION: With respect to the Florida case, you've been culturing some of those samples for a number of days now. Have you made progress in identifying the strain in Florida?
And also, with respect to that investigation, is it true that you did find additional Anthrax spores elsewhere in that building?
THOMPSON: That has got to be law enforcement. That's not for us to decide.
QUESTION: What about ID-ing the strain?
THOMPSON: The ID-ing, we're still working on the evaluation of it, as everybody knows.
But that is not conclusive yet.
QUESTION: There are reports that Tom Brokaw was being targeted.
ASHCROFT: They will be doing an update in Florida later today on that case.
That's what I'm told, and I'm not prepared to make any additional analysis.
THOMPSON: Thank you so very much.
QUESTION: How about that report that Tom Brokaw was being targeted, (inaudible)
it went to his secretary?
THOMPSON: I have no information about that.
QUESTION: Can anyone characterize how unusual this number, three cases of Anthrax exposure, in this short a time period is?
THOMPSON: It's unusual.
QUESTION: Would you characterize...
THOMPSON: Thank you. Thank you all for coming.