Anthrax worries have city on edge

Abbie Vansickle

As reports of anthrax and threats of biological terrorism spread fear across the country and closed much of Washington on Wednesday, Evanston law enforcement agencies and medical centers are preparing for worst-case scenarios.

The Evanston Police Department said it has its “game plan” ready in case of an epidemic. EPD Cmdr. Michael Perry said authorities have responded to three to six calls from area businesses and residences about suspicious substances and mail every day since the first case of anthrax was reported in South Florida earlier this month.

Although none of the suspicious packages reported in Evanston has tested positive for hazardous materials, Perry said police will respond to every call and treat all concerns seriously. But despite their willingness to answer calls, Perry said the false alarms are straining manpower and resources at both the police and fire departments as well as lengthening response times.

He said EPD has not yet assigned additional officers to shifts, but police have been operating under a state of “heightened security” since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Pointing to a checklist taped to his wall, Perry read off the recommended instructions for how to act when a suspicious substance is reported.

“Step one: We advise people to leave the suspicious container in its present condition, hopefully unopened,” he said. “Step two: Evacuate immediately. Step three: Shut off the ventilation to that room to prevent the spread of infection.”

Perry said that all people who may have come into contact with the material must be briefed by a health department official before leaving the premises.

He said the hazardous substance is then taken to the Illinois Crime Labs for testing. But he said the labs have been so overwhelmed by reports of hazardous materials that tests are taking several days, leaving many people concerned about their health.

“People are calling because they see a suspicious piece of mail, such as a letter with no return address,” he said. “It’s overexerting us and the fire department, but people are concerned and I understand that.”

Two of the calls have been to buildings on Northwestern’s campus.

Police responded to a suspicious package found at the Sports and Pavilion and Aquatics Center on Saturday morning, according to Sgt. Dave Perkins of University Police. Another suspicious package was discovered in the Technological Institute on Monday.

The materials in both packages were ruled not hazardous by the FBI, Perkins said.

Perry urged citizens to remember that the cutaneous, or skin, form of anthrax cannot be transferred from person to person or through the air.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most cutaneous anthrax infections occur when the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion in the skin. Skin infection starts as a raised itchy bump that looks like an insect bite. In a day or two, the bump becomes a painless ulcer. Infection is spread by handling food and other products from infected animals.

Perry echoed Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s plea that people continue to go on about their lives as normal.

“People just have to continue to live their lives,” he said.

But he also encouraged people to report anything that seems suspicious, saying it’s important not to assume “it can’t happen to you.”

Despite the increase in police calls, local pharmacies have mixed responses about their sales of Cipro, the best-known prescription antibiotic used to treat cutaneous anthrax, as well as gonorrhea, bronchitis, pneumonia, salmonella and urinary tract infections. But the pharmacies say they are stocking shelves with the antibiotic, anticipating that the large crowds seen clamoring for the medication in other cities will incite panic in Chicago residents.

“We’ve been selling a lot more Cipro,” said Robin Stelzer, a pharmacist at a Walgreen’s pharmacy in Wilmette. “You need a prescription for it, but a lot of people are getting it.”

She said the store’s sales of the medication have risen by 15 percent to 20 percent since last week.

Although the Walgreen’s hasn’t run out of Cipro yet, Stelzer said the store has shipped some of its stock to other stores in Chicago that have run out.

But Clarence Steinberg, a pharmacist at Morseview Pharmacy, 1029 Howard St., said he’s seen no change in sales of Cipro.

“I guess people around here just aren’t scared yet,” he said.