Local response is that of caution | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Local response is that of caution

Susan Wood

Federal, state and local agencies in South Lake Tahoe may take the recent anthrax scare with a grain of salt, but most are treating the mail service with unprecedented precautions.

New South Lake Tahoe Postmaster Mike Benson has given his crew of 70 a morning chat since Friday that provides background on the spore-forming bacterial disease and updates them on the United States Postal Service protocol.

Currently, there has been only one confirmed incident of anthrax bacteria sent through the national mail service.

Benson said the local post offices are operating on a “business as usual” basis, with optional gloves available for postal workers opting to use them.

The federal employees, like their customers, are warned to look for suspicious parcels. These may be defined as those that bear no return address, misspellings or powdery substance, come in an odd-sized package and exhibit protruding wires or strange odors or stains.

A resident who suspects receiving a suspicious letter or package is advised to refrain from handling it, El Dorado County Sheriff’s officials say. If one comes in contact with a substance from the package, it’s advised the handler bag the clothes and call 911 – but only if the package is suspicious in nature. A hazardous material specialist will take it from there.

If an anthrax threat is received by mail, the California Highway Patrol – trained to tackle hazardous substances – wants the handler to use latex gloves to bag the letter in a sealable plastic bag. Those who came in contact with the letter should wash their hands with soap and water.

CHP issued special training to state employees over the weekend, days after Gov. Gray Davis required staffers leave the mail alone until guidelines are released. In a whirlwind response to this fluid situation, an instructional videotape was released Monday.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, Employment Development Department, Tahoe Conservancy, Fish and Game, Lahontan Water Quality Control Board, Department of Fire Protection as well as Assemblyman Tim Leslie’s and Sen. Tom “Rico” Oller’s office are accepting mail with the precautions handed down as of Tuesday.

“We pretty much recognize the senders,” said EDD representative Patty Williams, who handles the mail for the state agency in Meyers. “This isn’t like Sacramento or L.A.”

No known threats have occurred in El Dorado County, but the sheriff’s department has reported that some people have brought in suspicious packages.

And the county has continued to educate itself, following updates from the California Office of Emergency Services.

Dep. Terry Fleck is headed to Atlanta next week to attend a conference from a Biological Detection Dog Unit. The seminar was scheduled a month ago.

“The question is how (the dogs) do this safely,” Fleck said Tuesday.

“In recent years, there has been a coordinated effort by county agencies to deal with potential threats,” Undersheriff Jeff Neves said.

Although the threat is remote here, response procedures are in place, Neves added.

Barton Memorial Hospital has a network of laboratories and other resources set up to test for biological agents and provide access to medications for treatment.

“We have a standard protocol to treat hazardous materials anyway,” Barton spokeswoman Linda Thompson said. Barton has received numerous calls since the Reno report made the news Friday.

Between July 1999 and 2000, the federal government reported about 178 anthrax threats received at courthouses, reproductive health service providers, churches, schools and post offices.

With the latest biochemical scare coming on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, many law enforcement and emergency services agencies find it important to note how rare the bacterial infection is in the United States.

From 1900 to 1976, only 18 cases of the inhaled version – the most dangerous – were reported in the United States. No more appeared until the highly publicized incident in Florida this month in which a tabloid photo editor died, the Centers for Disease Control reported Tuesday.

But for anyone who’s ever grown up on a farm, anthrax in various strains is known to affect livestock.

Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini told the Tahoe-Douglas Chamber of Commerce at its monthly meeting Tuesday that the law enforcement agency receives about 15 reports a year.

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