They don't call it bioterror for nothing: Fear is the foe when anthrax spores are found within hospital walls

We feel we were able to ward off a panic . . .’

Bioterrorism Watch

Clinicians nationwide were beset with hoax powder scares last year at the height of the anthrax attacks, but at one hospital, the threat turned out to be real. Positive cultures for Bacillus anthracis were found within hospital walls, setting off a wave of anxiety that threatened to descend into panic. "There was a mounting level of anxiety among our health care workers," said Maureen Schultz, RN, infection control coordinator at Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Washington, DC. "It had to be dealt with before we could work out any other aspect of the situation."

The events began to unfold last October, when it was discovered that the anthrax letter sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) might have contaminated other federal buildings through cross-contamination of mail processed at the Brentwood postal building in Washington, DC.

"It was several days before the contamination was discovered, and by that time, several downstream facilities, including our VA hospital, were contaminated," she said recently in Salt Lake City at the annual meeting of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA).1 In light of the situation, it was recommended that mailrooms in federal buildings be cultured for anthrax.

"One of the things we found frustrating was that we were not given any guidance as to how we should screen the mail," Schultz said. "So we [took] cotton swabs and ran each swab over an approximately 10 to 50 square inch area."

Four of 34 environmental swabs taken in the hospital mailroom grew B. anthracis, with colony counts varying from one to 11. The anthrax was found on a canvas mail tote, a cardboard box that had been mailed, on the top of a mailroom speaker, and on a canvas mail cart.

The fear factor

"Even before the contamination was discovered, [we] decided to take some action because of the growing concern among our employees," she said. "So [we] convened a group from the emergency response team, infection control, safety, and public affairs."

The focus of the response was to determine risk level, provide prophylaxis as needed, decontaminate the environment, and get accurate information to all 1,700 health care workers, patients, and visitors, Schultz said. In order to reduce the high level of anxiety, a series of educational sessions were held, information was posted on the hospital web page, press releases were distributed, and printed materials were given to staff, patients, and families. In addition, a series of "town-hall" meetings was held to fully air the concerns of employees.

"These were informal sessions that we had in our auditorium where many health care workers could come and interact on an informal basis," Schultz said.

The risk to hospital workers was determined to be low, and only eight staff members were started on prophylactic antibiotics. Those included five mailroom employees who were encouraged to take full 60-day regimens. Another three workers, considered at lower risk, were given 10-day regimens due to possible contact with contaminated mail. The mailroom and surrounding area were decontaminated by an outside contractor.

Overall, some 500 health care workers attended the education sessions, and each town-hall meeting drew more than 200 staff members. With the colony counts low and the contamination limited, the decision was made to limit prophylaxis to only the eight aforementioned employees. That approach was not well received by other health care workers who feared they could have been unknowingly exposed.

"We refused treatment to all other employees, and initially, this created a lot of anxiety among the health care workers, particularly in these large town-hall meetings," Schultz said. "They were demanding ciprofloxacin or doxycycline in case they had come in contact with something contaminated. But we did hold firm on this, and we did not provide prophylaxis to any other employees."

Still, at the SHEA meeting, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conceded that many of its initial assumptions about anthrax turned out to be false, including the perception that mail handlers were not at risk for inhalational anthrax. Given that acknowledgment, Bioterrorism Watch asked Schultz if she would now reconsider the decision to limit antibiotic prophylaxis to a few workers. "Based on the information we have now, no. I don’t think we would change that decision." There really was no evidence that any widespread contamination had occurred, she added.

A total of 34 workers reported to the occupational health service for clinical evaluation, but there were no reports of staff refusing to work, and patient care was not interrupted. The initial level of fear and anxiety among many of the workers eased off under the continuous education and communication effort. "We feel we were able to ward off a panic situation by the actions that we took," she said.

NYC hospital faces similar situation

A similar contamination incident was feared at Memorial Sloan Kettering Institute, a 431-bed cancer center in New York City. Some 1,200 health care workers at Sloan Kettering work in the same building as Gov. George Pataki’s Manhattan office, which was reported to be the target of anthrax mailing. On Oct. 17, possible anthrax (positive by polymerase chain reaction test) was discovered in the governor’s office. Pataki and staff vacated their part of the building, and infection control staff and hospital administration at Sloan Kettering developed a response plan to protect their workers.

The hospital employees worked on 10 floors of the 40-story building, including three floors that shared an air-ventilation system with the governor’s offices. The response was honed to focus on mailroom staff and some 250 employees who worked on the three floors with shared air. With incomplete information on the scope of potential contamination of Pataki’s offices, hospital clinicians decided to perform nasal cultures on the employees on the three floors, Janet Eagan, RN, an infection control professional at Sloan Kettering reported at the SHEA conference.2 All of the 245 cultures taken were negative.

"I think the nasal swabs were more to allay fear," she said. "We wanted to do something that was proactive."

Public health investigators first used the nasal swab approach after the first anthrax case in Florida, but the CDC would later advise against routine use of the practice. The reliability of the swabs came into question, in part, because even those exposed may test negative as the nose clears of spores. At a Nov. 1, 2002, press briefing, the CDC advised against using nasal swabs "as a nonspecific probe to determine whether anthrax has ever been present in an environment."

Of course, clinicians at Sloan Kettering were dealing with a situation before that clarification was issued, but even then there were doubts about the wisdom of swabbing the workers.

"By the time we agreed to do the nasal swabs, I was kicking myself, thinking what on earth are we going to do with this information," Ken Sepkowitz, MD, epidemiologist at the hospital told SHEA attendees. "The nasal swabs was a screw-up, but with the information we had . . ."

With all the swabs negative, no antibiotics were administered. Additional efforts were needed to reassure the "worried well" that they were not at risk. Personnel from infection control, safety, security, and social work all met with the staff. Building management conducted an independent environmental survey of the building.

"E-mails went to all staff that all 245 employees tested had negative results," Eagan said. "Communication is key. We believe that by having a hands-on approach — actually being there meeting with staff — prevented panic in employees that were very vulnerable."

Then word came that the original specimen from the governor’s office had been found culture negative on retesting. The hospital had been through an intense false alarm drill, but overall had met the challenge, Eagan said.

"Decisions were made using incomplete information at a time-sensitive pace," she said. "Staff responded in a positive manner to the high visibility of administrative leadership, infectious disease, and infection control in numerous educational sessions and e-mail alerts."


1. Gordin F, Schultz M, Benator D, et al. A coordinated response to contamination of the hospital environment with Bacillus anthracis spores. Abstract 129. Presented at the annual conference for the Society for Health Care Epidemiology of America. Salt Lake City; April 6-9, 2002.

2. Eagan J, Martin K, Prager L, et al. Infection control response to potential anthrax contamination of building with hospital workers. Abstract 130. Presented at the annual conference for the Society for Health Care Epidemiology of America. Salt Lake City; April 6-9, 2002.