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Bioterrorism concerns put in focus

The threat of anthrax finding its way to the area is small, officials say, as they explain how to react to suspicious letters.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


The threat of anthrax finding its way to the area is small, officials say, as they explain how to react to suspicious letters.

TARPON SPRINGS -- Police, fire and postal officials tried to calm residents' fears Tuesday with a message that they should be aware of the possible dangers of anthrax but they also should understand how improbable it is that they will be infected.

"It's highly unlikely that you'd ever be exposed to it," Michael Porta, the postmaster for Tarpon Springs, told a small audience at the Tarpon Springs Library.

Porta and others spoke at three forums about bioterrorism Tuesday. They explained what anthrax is and what to do with suspicious letters, and they pointed out how difficult it is to produce the small particles of anthrax that have been sent through the mail.

"Understand that the odds . . . are very, very remote," said Sgt. Allen MacKenzie of the Tarpon Springs Police Department. "Just keep your wits about you."

Authorities reminded people that if they receive a suspicious letter that they should isolate it, put it in a bag and wash their hands with soap and water. U.S. Postmaster William A. Camp offered some common sense advice: If you receive a letter with an unknown white powder, he said, don't touch, smell or taste it.

The few residents who attended a morning session said they only have mild concerns about anthrax but they wanted a little more information.

Katie Gavalas of New Port Richey, who sorts mail at Aloha Utilities there, said she touches up to 1,000 pieces of mail on her busiest days.

"I just want to make sure that I'm aware," she said.

Betty Dionne of Tarpon Springs, a retired postal clerk, said she plans to start working again when a postal substation opens in December in the Tarpon Arcade.

"Needless to say, it is frightening," she said of other postal workers' exposure to anthrax. "Luckily, in a small town like this, we know most of our customers."

Attendance was not much higher at the later forums. Together, the three forums drew no more than two dozen residents. Still, officials said they wanted to have an effect on those who showed up.

"The intent is for you to walk out of here and be a little more at ease," Rick Butcher, fire marshal for the city, said at the morning forum.

Porta and Camp pointed out that there haven't been any cases of anthrax in this area. Hundreds of letters have been tested at University of South Florida laboratories, but they have shown no signs of the disease, Camp said.

Even though the speakers said the anthrax threat to local residents is low, Capt. Don Sayre of Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue said the city prepared for bioterrorism attacks, even before the latest anthrax scares.

"We've been practicing this . . . similar to a hurricane preparedness," he said. "Hopefully, we will be ahead of the curve."

-- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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