Obama spurs plans to deliver drugs by mail after bio attack

Dec 31, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – President Barack Obama, giving a push to a proposal that has been in the works for years, yesterday ordered federal agencies to develop a plan for the US Postal Service (USPS) to deliver medical countermeasures to households in the wake of a biological attack.

In an executive order, Obama said the federal government "shall pursue a national U.S. Postal Service medical countermeasures dispensing model to respond to a large-scale biological attack."

The president ordered the departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Homeland Security (DHS) to work with the USPS to develop a countermeasures delivery plan within 6 months, focused on anthrax as the primary threat. An attacker who sent anthrax spores by mail was blamed for killing five people and sickening 17 more in the fall of 2001.

The White House order also calls on federal agencies to plan for the use of federal law enforcement officers, if needed, to help local law officers escort mail carriers delivering the medical supplies, most likely antibiotics.

Obama further ordered HHS, DHS, and the Department of Defense to develop a plan for helping state and local governments distribute medical countermeasures if necessary. The agencies are also ordered to plan for providing countermeasures to essential federal personnel so the government could keep functioning after an attack.

Assigning the USPS to deliver antibiotics after a bioterrorist attack is not a new idea. "The Postal Service has been working on this project for years," USPS spokeswoman Sue Brennan commented to CIDRAP News today.

Brennan noted that the agency conducted three proof-of-concept drills in 2006 and 2007—one each in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Boston. In those exercises, a total of 119 mail carriers delivered dummy boxes of antibiotics and explanatory fliers to 114,000 households, she said.

Another exercise is scheduled to take place in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area sometime in 2010, with mail carriers delivering packages to 205,000 homes, about 25% of the metro area. That drill will have a new dimension, she said, in that the mail carriers will be screened for special measures to protect themselves from anthrax. Plans for the exercise were first announced in October 2008.

"We have solicited volunteer letter carriers who had to be fit tested for masks and had to undergo physicals to ensure they could take [the antibiotic] doxycycline," Brennan said. "They and their families will be given antibiotics for the test period. They obviously won't need to take them since it's a test."

The first announcement of a proposal to have the USPS deliver antibiotics after a bioterrorist attack came in February 2004. USPS officials said then that the idea was to use mail carriers to deliver antibiotics from the Strategic National Stockpile as a way to supplement local public health efforts in response to a major incident.

Obama's order yesterday came less than a week after a man with alleged ties to al-Quaida tried to bring down an airliner bound for Detroit by setting off an explosive mixture in his clothing. As an Associated Press report noted, since that failed attack, the president has sought to assure the public that his administration is striving to protect the country from terrorists.

See also:

Dec 30 White House order

Oct 2, 2008, CIDRAP News story "To blunt anthrax attack, mail carriers to get antibiotics"

Feb 20, 2004, CIDRAP News story "Bioterrorist attack might trigger mass mailing of antibiotics"

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