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OFFICIALS OUTLINE BIO-TERRORISM PLANS IN PLACE

Oct. 22, 2001 – Top health and public safety officials told a Senate Committee of the Whole on Monday that the territory is reasonably well prepared to handle an anthrax threat — although the local testing capability is very limited.
There have been eight reported anthrax scares — all suspicious-looking envelopes — in the territory, according to Dean Plaskett, commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources, the lead agency for response to any anthrax threats. There also have been several hoaxes and false alarms, FBI Special Agent Michael Clark said at a Government House press conference Friday.
Dr. Mavis Matthew, acting commissioner of Health and the governor's recently announced nominee for the permanent position, told senators Monday on St. Thomas that there have been no reports of anthrax exposure in the Virgin Islands. She also said there are no testing facilities for the disease in the territory.
Plaskett said his agency has hazardous materials teams in place in both districts. The teams have full-body protection suits and breathing apparatus and are trained in the handling of weapons of mass destruction. Leonard Reed heads the St. Thomas-St. John team, and Carlos Farchette heads the St. Croix team.
Plaskett told the lawmakers his department works closely with the Police, Labor, Public Works and Human Services Departments and Fire Services, Emergency Medical Services and the hospitals under the umbrella of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency. He said he is working with the Law Enforcement Planning Commission to get funding for more equipment and protective suits.
"We want to instill confidence in the community that we have a plan in place and [are] ready to come forward with it," he said
Harold Baker, VITEMA director, said his agency's training program is ongoing and had expanded from storm mitigation to global threats including bioterrorism and cyber-terrorism before Sept. 11. "A response plan is in place," he said.
V.I. National Guard Maj. Gen. Cleave McBean is in charge of coordinating local efforts with the federal government's new Office of Homeland Security, Baker said.
Hospitals 'ready for bio-terrorism threat'
Thomas Robinson, chief executive of the Juan F. Luis Hospital and acting CEO of Roy L. Schneider Hospital said the hospitals "are ready for any bio-terrorism threat."
Lydia M. Thomas, director of risk management at Luis Hospital, said the facility is following the American Hospital Association guidelines and completing an extensive AHA checklist. She said hospital officials are attending meetings and teleconferences with the V.I. Justice Department and all of the agencies under VITEMA, as well as the office of the delegate to Congress.
Schneider Hospital has a decontamination facility but Luis Hospital does not, Thomas said. Hospital security has been increased with only one exit in use from 8 p.m to 6 a.m., she said.
Robinson submitted a detailed response and management plan for use in the Schneider Hospital emergency room with a patient exposed to a hazardous chemical or biological agent, along with an extensive readiness program from the AHA which both hospitals are implementing.
Much of what the officials had to say has been widely disseminated through local and national media, but the senators wanted to hear first hand. Concern about taking antibiotics came up several times.
Matthew and Robinson stressed the dangers of taking Cipro or any other antibiotic by persons who have not been exposed to anthrax. They said the territory's pharmacies have enough antibiotics on hand and have ordered more, should the need arise. Cipro is expensive, Matthew said, but another effective antibiotic is available at a fraction of the cost.
Matthew said the Health Department is establishing contact with the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to access necessary services and CDC health advisories and protocols.
Local testing capabilities 'very limited'
She said testing to diagnose anthrax in the V.I. is very limited. "A gram stain can be performed, which can detect anthrax bacteria," she said. "Nasal swabs and blood cultures can be collected but must be shipped off island for analysis." She said. Florida's Department of Health laboratory is "CDC recommended to handle specimens from the V.I."
Making her second public appearance since being nominated as Health commissioner, Matthew spoke knowledgeably about the disease and the public reaction to it. "It is critical to separate fact from fear," she stated. "Anthrax is not contagious, because the bacteria do not produce spores while they are growing in an infected person."
She said the Health Department now has a hotline to respond to questions and concerns about possible contamination or other matters. The number is 776-8311, ext. 2148.
Police Commissioned Franz Christian detailed a multi-jurisdictional plan for combating terrorism and bio-terrorism threats. Referring to it as a "unified command," he said it includes local and federal agencies. The plan includes an alert system, starting with the 911 communication system. Christian and Plaskett both stressed the importance of those with concerns calling 911 first. The emergency response operator then will determine which agency should respond.
Christian said Fire Services and DPNR have joint roles in responding to and managing hazardous material and terrorism situations. Emergency Medical Services is responsible for triage (medical care prioritizing) and related activities. The police commissioner said he was "relatively confident" that with existing plans, the territory will be "in a good position to respond to and recover from any act of terrorism."
Sen. Carlton Dowe asked Robinson and Christian if new EMTs had yet been hired from the $400,000 the Legislature appropriated for that purpose last summer, and if new canine units had been purchased from the $20,000 allotted for that purpose. Dowe said another $200,000 had been appropriated for kennels and supplies. He told both officials to call the Office of Budget and Management and "get the money out of the pipeline."
Neither Robinson nor Christian responded to Dowe's comments.
Postmaster Louis Jackson said the public must watch out for suspicious mail — letters or packages with no return address, an address that is crudely lettered or typed, that has a strange odor or oily stains, that is excessive wrapped, or that carries such advisories as "personal" or "confidential." He said if someone receives an anthrax threat by mail, the material should immediately be isolated, the area should be cordoned off, and 911 should be called. And all persons handling the mail should immediately wash their hands.
Jackson said "reasonable measures" are in place to protect postal employees. He said gloves are provided to any employee requesting them, the U.S. Postal Service is working closely with other federal agencies, and a "mail security task force" has been established.
Mail security video available for free
The Postal Service is offering a free video on mail security to anyone requesting it. The video can be ordered online at the USPS web site, or by calling 1-800-STAMP24, Jackson said.
Sen. Lorraine Berry asked the hospital officers if they had read a report published last week in a print newspaper saying neither the Health Department nor VITEMA was prepared to respond to a biological attack. The hospital officials assured Berry that both hospitals now have infection disease specialists on staff.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II, noting the arrival of 48 undocumented Chinese aliens on St. John Sunday, asked the officials what preventive measures are being taken with regard to people entering the territory illegally. Baker said VITEMA is working with U.S. Customs and the Immigration and Natura
lization Service on shoreline patrols.
Hansen then asked if someone could put an end to the persistent rumor he said he keeps hearing that "one of the 19 terrorists" involved in the Sept. 11 attacks "lived in the territory for some time." Baker replied, "No comment."
Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd asked the officials what funding they would need to complete their plans. "Let us know what we can help you with," he said. Robinson said he would have a list ready in five to seven days. Protocol dictates that it would go to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull first, he said, but he pledged to forward a copy to Liburd's office.
Thirteen senators attended the meeting. Sens. Vargrave Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. were excused.

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Oct. 22, 2001 - Top health and public safety officials told a Senate Committee of the Whole on Monday that the territory is reasonably well prepared to handle an anthrax threat -- although the local testing capability is very limited.
There have been eight reported anthrax scares -- all suspicious-looking envelopes -- in the territory, according to Dean Plaskett, commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources, the lead agency for response to any anthrax threats. There also have been several hoaxes and false alarms, FBI Special Agent Michael Clark said at a Government House press conference Friday.
Dr. Mavis Matthew, acting commissioner of Health and the governor's recently announced nominee for the permanent position, told senators Monday on St. Thomas that there have been no reports of anthrax exposure in the Virgin Islands. She also said there are no testing facilities for the disease in the territory.
Plaskett said his agency has hazardous materials teams in place in both districts. The teams have full-body protection suits and breathing apparatus and are trained in the handling of weapons of mass destruction. Leonard Reed heads the St. Thomas-St. John team, and Carlos Farchette heads the St. Croix team.
Plaskett told the lawmakers his department works closely with the Police, Labor, Public Works and Human Services Departments and Fire Services, Emergency Medical Services and the hospitals under the umbrella of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency. He said he is working with the Law Enforcement Planning Commission to get funding for more equipment and protective suits.
"We want to instill confidence in the community that we have a plan in place and [are] ready to come forward with it," he said
Harold Baker, VITEMA director, said his agency's training program is ongoing and had expanded from storm mitigation to global threats including bioterrorism and cyber-terrorism before Sept. 11. "A response plan is in place," he said.
V.I. National Guard Maj. Gen. Cleave McBean is in charge of coordinating local efforts with the federal government's new Office of Homeland Security, Baker said.
Hospitals 'ready for bio-terrorism threat'
Thomas Robinson, chief executive of the Juan F. Luis Hospital and acting CEO of Roy L. Schneider Hospital said the hospitals "are ready for any bio-terrorism threat."
Lydia M. Thomas, director of risk management at Luis Hospital, said the facility is following the American Hospital Association guidelines and completing an extensive AHA checklist. She said hospital officials are attending meetings and teleconferences with the V.I. Justice Department and all of the agencies under VITEMA, as well as the office of the delegate to Congress.
Schneider Hospital has a decontamination facility but Luis Hospital does not, Thomas said. Hospital security has been increased with only one exit in use from 8 p.m to 6 a.m., she said.
Robinson submitted a detailed response and management plan for use in the Schneider Hospital emergency room with a patient exposed to a hazardous chemical or biological agent, along with an extensive readiness program from the AHA which both hospitals are implementing.
Much of what the officials had to say has been widely disseminated through local and national media, but the senators wanted to hear first hand. Concern about taking antibiotics came up several times.
Matthew and Robinson stressed the dangers of taking Cipro or any other antibiotic by persons who have not been exposed to anthrax. They said the territory's pharmacies have enough antibiotics on hand and have ordered more, should the need arise. Cipro is expensive, Matthew said, but another effective antibiotic is available at a fraction of the cost.
Matthew said the Health Department is establishing contact with the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to access necessary services and CDC health advisories and protocols.
Local testing capabilities 'very limited'
She said testing to diagnose anthrax in the V.I. is very limited. "A gram stain can be performed, which can detect anthrax bacteria," she said. "Nasal swabs and blood cultures can be collected but must be shipped off island for analysis." She said. Florida's Department of Health laboratory is "CDC recommended to handle specimens from the V.I."
Making her second public appearance since being nominated as Health commissioner, Matthew spoke knowledgeably about the disease and the public reaction to it. "It is critical to separate fact from fear," she stated. "Anthrax is not contagious, because the bacteria do not produce spores while they are growing in an infected person."
She said the Health Department now has a hotline to respond to questions and concerns about possible contamination or other matters. The number is 776-8311, ext. 2148.
Police Commissioned Franz Christian detailed a multi-jurisdictional plan for combating terrorism and bio-terrorism threats. Referring to it as a "unified command," he said it includes local and federal agencies. The plan includes an alert system, starting with the 911 communication system. Christian and Plaskett both stressed the importance of those with concerns calling 911 first. The emergency response operator then will determine which agency should respond.
Christian said Fire Services and DPNR have joint roles in responding to and managing hazardous material and terrorism situations. Emergency Medical Services is responsible for triage (medical care prioritizing) and related activities. The police commissioner said he was "relatively confident" that with existing plans, the territory will be "in a good position to respond to and recover from any act of terrorism."
Sen. Carlton Dowe asked Robinson and Christian if new EMTs had yet been hired from the $400,000 the Legislature appropriated for that purpose last summer, and if new canine units had been purchased from the $20,000 allotted for that purpose. Dowe said another $200,000 had been appropriated for kennels and supplies. He told both officials to call the Office of Budget and Management and "get the money out of the pipeline."
Neither Robinson nor Christian responded to Dowe's comments.
Postmaster Louis Jackson said the public must watch out for suspicious mail -- letters or packages with no return address, an address that is crudely lettered or typed, that has a strange odor or oily stains, that is excessive wrapped, or that carries such advisories as "personal" or "confidential." He said if someone receives an anthrax threat by mail, the material should immediately be isolated, the area should be cordoned off, and 911 should be called. And all persons handling the mail should immediately wash their hands.
Jackson said "reasonable measures" are in place to protect postal employees. He said gloves are provided to any employee requesting them, the U.S. Postal Service is working closely with other federal agencies, and a "mail security task force" has been established.
Mail security video available for free
The Postal Service is offering a free video on mail security to anyone requesting it. The video can be ordered online at the USPS web site, or by calling 1-800-STAMP24, Jackson said.
Sen. Lorraine Berry asked the hospital officers if they had read a report published last week in a print newspaper saying neither the Health Department nor VITEMA was prepared to respond to a biological attack. The hospital officials assured Berry that both hospitals now have infection disease specialists on staff.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II, noting the arrival of 48 undocumented Chinese aliens on St. John Sunday, asked the officials what preventive measures are being taken with regard to people entering the territory illegally. Baker said VITEMA is working with U.S. Customs and the Immigration and Natura lization Service on shoreline patrols.
Hansen then asked if someone could put an end to the persistent rumor he said he keeps hearing that "one of the 19 terrorists" involved in the Sept. 11 attacks "lived in the territory for some time." Baker replied, "No comment."
Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd asked the officials what funding they would need to complete their plans. "Let us know what we can help you with," he said. Robinson said he would have a list ready in five to seven days. Protocol dictates that it would go to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull first, he said, but he pledged to forward a copy to Liburd's office.
Thirteen senators attended the meeting. Sens. Vargrave Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. were excused.