Lessons learned from Katrina, 9/11, SARS, and other disasters
In hindsight, it was relatively easy to control. There was looking back, it was a disease that, once you reimplemented public health measures, good infection control measures, we were able to control it, but a lot of tough lesson and a lot of concern before that actually happened.
SHUTE: Thank you.
Dr. Weisfuse, you've had some real experience in first responding; first with 9/11 then a month later to the day when you got the call about the first anthrax case in New York. Can you tell us about that?
WEISFUSE: Sure. I was at home in my home in the Bronx, and it was October 11, 2001. So that was a month after September 11th, and we in the health department, I think it's safe to say, were fairly exhausted. We had been following a woman who worked for Tom Brokaw of NBC News, who had a lesion that was clinically diagnosed at dermatologic anthrax. And she had described opening an envelope that had some powder, and we had gotten some of that powder from that envelope and tested in our lab, and in fact, it was not anthrax.
So at 11 that night, I got a phone call saying that that powder had been sent to CDC and had been tested and, again, it was not anthrax. I remember going to bed that night saying to myself, we finally caught a break. You don't get anthrax unless you're exposed to anthrax; this person was not exposed to anthrax, and finally, finally, finally, after our weekend, at least rest easy.
Unfortunately, around three or four in the morning, we got a phone call from the Centers for Disease Control where they had been looking at a slide of the woman's lesion and did identify anthrax, and when we were told of it around three or four in the morning, we activated our internal command system. We all - I remember basically saying, I can't believe it, about ten times - or muttering it to myself when I got the phone call because it just didn't, at that moment, make sense to me.
We had our initial meeting at in our downtown offices at 6:30 in the morning. We ended and it ended up being that day October 12, which was a Friday, you know, was an incredibly remarkable day. So we started our day at three or four in the morning, met at 6:30 in the morning, got to NBC around 9:00, which we then discovered that there was a second envelope that she had opened that had a powder, that we located.
By that evening we found out there were four other media outlets in the city with highly suspicious cases - ABC, CBS, as well as the New York Post. By midnight, we had transported that envelope to our laboratory, where we then contaminated our laboratory, therefore knocking it out from doing any further anthrax testing, and two of three of our laboratorians, who were trained to do this testing, tested positive by nasal swab for bacillus anthracis. So we had quite a 24 hours.