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Missouri could be more prepared for bioterrorism says state Health offficial

November 01, 2001
By: Nicholas Rummell
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri may not be prepared in some areas of bioterrorism prevention, according to the state's top health official.

During a hearing of the Senate Health Committee on bioterrorism Thursday, Health Department Director Maureen Dempsey said that Missouri did not have a coordinated planning process to deal with bioterrorist threats.

Dempsey said that Missouri is very prepared and knows what it needs to do to be safe in some areas of bioterrorism prevention.

"In other places, we need a little bit more time, and we need a little bit more planning and expertise," she said.

Coordination between certain agencies is minimal, and there is no command and control center to organize responses between public and private sectors.

But, Dempsey said, by not being totally prepared, and by investigating threats to public health after they occur, is an appropriate response.

Further testimony from environmental health officials also stated that disposal and storage for potentially hazardous packages and mail is lacking.

Doug Roberts, the mail processing plant manager at the Post Office in Columbia, stated that while mail can pass through several post offices, and therefore several post office employees' hands, there are "minimal human contacts."

Roberts also stated that there was currently no screening process for mail from potentially dangerous locations, and that only certain signs -- such as a package having awkward labeling or no return address -- would serve as a red light.

For instance, mail from the Brentwood postal center in Washington, D.C. -- the speculated origin of anthrax that infected a postal center in Kansas City Wednesday -- could make its way through post offices throughout the nation before even becoming suspect of carrying bacterial agents.

But, employees that handle mail are given rubber gloves to wear, according to Roberts.

Commercial mailing services, such as the United Parcel Service, have also been on the lookout for bioterrorism and have instituted security measures.

Spokesman Dan McMackin said that UPS had more than 13 million shipments a day, mostly between businesses, but is very different than the federal postal system in both clientele and the way it handles its mail.

"There is no possibility for an anonymous package...there is no way to just drop a package into the mail system," he said, not clarifying if packages handled by UPS could be tampered with after they were received.

When packages are brought to a counter to be mailed, McMackin said, UPS employees are required to ask about its contents before shipping.

Although he said that employees are on a heightened sense of alert, McMackin refused to elaborate on any other security measures instituted by UPS.