NYC Response to the Anthrax Attacks of 2001

Oct 10, 2011, 2:48 PM, Posted by

Weisfuse Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have issued a new report, Remembering 9/11 and Anthrax: Public Health’s Vital Role in National Defense. To mark the anniversary of the anthrax attacks ten years ago, NewPublicHealth continues to run excerpts from the report.

The following is an excerpt of the Q&A with Isaac Weisfuse, M.D., M.P.H., Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Disease Control of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who led the investigation when an assistant to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was exposed to anthrax from a letter delivered to NBC.

What do you remember most about the initial response to the anthrax attacks, both nationally and from your office?

It all happened on October 12, 2001, one of the most remarkable days in the long history of this health department. I remember working at NBC at Rockefeller Center that first day. There were many leaders of NBC, NBC news, and later on General Electric (parent company of NBC) present. The first meeting was with Mayor Giuliani and CDC (on the phone). This meeting focused on the anthrax biopsy result from an NBC employee and what it meant. After that came meeting with NBC nightly news staff, where Tom Brokaw spoke eloquently to his staff, informing them of the diagnosis in one of their coworkers. Thereafter there was a meeting with staff from one of their investigative reporting shows that was tense. I was on the firing line for questions on anthrax and many were difficult if not impossible to answer. It didn’t help that the HVAC system was shut off, and it was hot in the room.

What was your and your agency’s role in responding to the anthrax attacks?

We were responsible for the epidemiologic workup of cases, oversaw environmental sampling, environmental clean-up, and provided prophylaxis to those at risk. Once letters were confirmed to have had anthrax in them, we had to map out the flow of the letters starting in the mailroom and throughout the building. We even had to map out the flow of garbage at Rockefeller Center.

How would you characterize the response to the attack(s)? What were the hardest parts of the response to the attack(s)?

First we started out exhausted by our response to the World Trade Center disaster. We had communication problems because of damage to NYC’s phone system downtown. The nasal swabs we took of potentially exposed people were particularly troublesome. In all the chaos the swab results were frequently delayed, tough to track down, but yet always wanted immediately for press announcements. Lab staff worked extraordinarily hard under difficult circumstances: their lab was contaminated on October 12, and some staff were exposed to anthrax and put on prophylaxis. All of the initial cases were high profile, in part because of anthrax, in part because they occurred in staff from some of the most influential corporations in the United States. Coming after the WTC, there was also a sense of not knowing what was going to happen next.

What did the country learn most from the successive attacks? What was the biggest take away?

First the obvious is that we are vulnerable to bioterrorism, which I don’t think people took that seriously prior to 2001. It also pointed out that public health is a vital part of an emergency response. We also need to do a better job in communicating with the public and give them information on what individuals, families and communities can do to keep themselves safe.

What are the most crucial factors to ensure that our country is prepared for a biological emergency?

Assuring an adequate workforce, support of the strategic national stockpile, development of better mechanisms for rapid distribution and administration of antibiotics and vaccines, and creation of environmental clean-up standards.

>>Read the full Q&A with Isaac Weisfuse here. View the full report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation here.

>>Read a Q&A with Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in the National Institutes of Health on the national response to the anthrax attacks here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.