Bioterrorist attack might trigger mass mailing of antibiotics

Feb 20, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – Under a plan currently being discussed, a major bioterrorist attack could trigger use of the mail system to deliver antibiotics from a national stockpile to homes, the US Postal Service (USPS) announced this week.

The proposal calls for the USPS "to deliver antibiotics from the Strategic National Stockpile directly to residential addresses in the event of a catastrophic incident involving a biological agent for which antibiotic use is appropriate," the agency said in a short news release.

The Strategic National Stockpile consists of large caches of drugs and other medical supplies stored at 12 secret locations around the country. The stockpile is controlled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Antibiotics could be used to respond to attacks involving the bacteria that cause anthrax, plague, or tularemia, all of which are considered likely bioterrorist weapons.

The USPS said the plan is intended to supplement, not replace, local public health and emergency management efforts in the event of a major incident. "Local public health agencies would also dispense initial and follow-up supplies of antibiotics and relevant information in the affected areas," officials said.

The plan is being developed jointly by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), DHS, and the Postal Service.

HHS spokesman Bill Hall in Washington, DC, told CIDRAP News, "The main reason there's a public announcement is because we are in a phase now where we 're beginning to involve a lot of the partner groups, the postal workers, the public health community, state and local public health officials and emergency management officials." He said there is no specific target date for completing the plan.

The concern behind the plan is that in a major bioterrorist attack or other major disease threat, the public health system could be overwhelmed by huge numbers of people seeking to get antibiotics quickly, Hall said. "The reason the Postal Service was approached was because they have an infrastructure that no one else has, they can reach every household in the country," he said.

The USPS release said the feasibility of including the Postal Service in cities' emergency plans has to be determined through further discussions with state and local officials.

Bob Anderson, a USPS spokesman in Washington, called the proposal "a plan to develop a plan." The three agencies involved "will have many more meetings to discuss if, in the event of a catastrophic incident, the Postal Service might be called upon to help," he told CIDRAP News.

If the plan goes forward, participation by individual postal workers would be voluntary, the USPS said.

Anderson said that if a major incident requiring large-scale distribution of antibiotics occurred now, he isn't sure if the USPS would get involved. "I'm sure any federal agency or the president or whatever could approach us, but whether or not we could or would do it, I can't say at this point," he said. "There's a zillion distribution methods; it just depends on what the incident would be."

Hall said that if an attack occurred now, the planning that's already been done would be helpful. "If something were to happen today, I think because we've already done some level of planning, that would put us a little further ahead of the game than we were previously. There's enough planning and coordination that's taken place that I think it would work out somehow. We'd be able to accomplish it."

See also:

List of USPS news releases; see release #04-015, issued Feb 18

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