GOLD BEACH Whether anthrax ever shows up in Curry County or not, law enforcement and public health agencies are ready.
Sheriff Kent Owens and Public Health Director Barbara Floyd told the Curry County commissioners Wednesday that they do not know what the next terrorist threat may be, but they are ready for anthrax.
They were reporting on the progress of the Curry County Interagency Anti-terrorism Task Force, which has had five meetings so far.
I was nervous at first, said Owens of the biological threat. We were not prepared to respond. I was eager to get on top of it.
Owens said the exchange of information among the agencies has given him the confidence that Curry County is able to respond to biological and chemical threats.
The task force is made up of representatives from the police departments, fire districts, ambulance companies, school districts, Curry General Hospital, the Curry County Health Department and Emergency Services Office, the Civil Air Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Oregon State Police and the Sheriffs Office.
Owens said it was the first time most members had to deal with preparing to respond to biological or chemical attacks.
He said many of the agencies had worked together for years responding to accidents. More recently, said Owens, theyve had to learn to work together on bomb threats in schools.
This is taking it to a new level, he said.
There doesnt have to be an actual attack, said Owens. Even the threat of one has to be treated as if it was real.
Owens said he was scrambling for answers a few weeks ago. He knew the police would have to respond to any threat first, but he wondered if they had the proper equipment to protect themselves.
He didnt know if fire equipment would be capable of protecting responders from biological agents.
He didnt know who would be in control of the crime scene or if they would have the authority to clear people out of an area quickly, or keep them there.
He wondered if transporting victims of a biological attack would mean the ambulance could not be decontaminated and used again. He didnt know if the hospital could even accept such victims and risk contaminating other patients.
Five weeks of task force meetings provided many of the answers Owens was seeking.
By speaking with the fire agencies, he found their equipment would allow them to enter biologically or chemically contaminated areas.
By talking with law enforcement personnel, fire and ambulance responders he learned they may be entering crime scenes, and are aware they must disturb as little evidence as possible.
We understand how were going to respond now, said Owens. All of us are pretty confident now. Weve come a long way.
He said the task force will break up into individual disciplines and come back together in a month.
The police will meet as often as necessary to address training and equipment needs, he said, and fire will do the same.
Owens said Emergency Services Coordinator Mike Murphy has been at every task force meeting and is extensively involved in the process.
He is making a list of all the agencies involved, along with their training and equipment needs.
Owens said the various agencies need to train together too, which will be expensive. He is applying for a grant through the National Sheriffs Association to help cover the costs.
He said Curry County has 13 fire agencies. He thought they could all benefit from grant money for more equipment and breathing apparatus.
Owens said the task force will get more training this week on biological and chemical agents.
Every participant is eagerly involved, he said.
Theres a certain urgency, said Owens, to prepare as soon as possible, so citizens can be confident of getting appropriate help. We can do that with anthrax today.
Floyd called the task force meetings a good jumping-off point.
We all get information, she said. The meetings help sort out what is similar and what is different. We can work together in a coordinated way.
She said Murphy is vital to conveying that information to everyone on the task force.
Floyd said her department has taken lots of calls from worried people, but it is coming up to speed on biological and chemical threats.
Floyd has received some information on the issue at conferences over the years. She said that background is now helpful. She said she is not an expert yet, but has compiled a large stack of information.
We can find answers to almost any health question on the subject. The advice is evolving every day.
Floyd said that only a week ago, postal workers were thought to be at risk from skin anthrax only. Now, two have died from inhalation anthrax.
Its an unfolding situation, she said.
The good news is that there have been a relatively small number of illnesses and deaths from anthrax.
Floyd said to put it in context, 20,000 Americans will die of complications from the flu this year, while 300,000 will die from illnesses related to tobacco use.
Still, she said, anthrax is a very legitimate concern. Its natural when something new happens.
She told people to remember that most powdery substances are not anthrax, but can come from kitchens or workshops.
Look for logical explanations, she advised.
Floyd said there have been no cases of anthrax exposure in Oregon so far, though some Oregonians who have been in Washington may be tested.
We want to give reassurance, she said, but not false assurance.
Anthrax is an old disease, said Floyd, which was once limited mainly to animals and people who dealt with them, and products made from animals. Wool sorters used to contract anthrax. During the 20th century, she said, there were only 20 cases of inhaled anthrax.
Floyd said a lot of information on anthrax is available to doctors, and most laboratories can do cultures and swabs.
She said her department, along with clinicians, is receiving information from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Health Department is also working closely with Curry General Hospital.
I feel very confident, as serious as this is, we are rising to the challenge again, said Floyd.
She said finding enough staff time is her biggest challenge to working on biological threats. She said the Association of Oregon Counties worked hard to get more funding for infectious disease response, but was turned down by both the Legislature and governor.
Floyd said she hoped attitudes had changed since Sept. 11. Commissioner Marlyn Schafer said the Legislature may address that funding in a special session.
We need dedicated staff time for this issue, said Floyd. Law enforcement needs it too.
She said she was encouraged by how well the drug-stockpile system in the United States seems to be working during the anthrax crisis.
She said the CDC decided to treat 1,000 people in Florida with antibiotics and was ready to do so by 5 a.m. the next day.
There are stockpiles of material around the country, said Floyd. The system is in place. It worked very well.
She said where anthrax exposure is suspected, the CDC is treating people liberally to prevent an outbreak.