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Public asked to keep calm in face of anthrax hysteria

by Jim Fisher

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Local law enforcement and health officials are urging area residents to remain calm in the face of the anthrax hysteria that has swept across the nation.

The anthrax scare began in Florida Oct. 4 when it was confirmed that an editor of the Sun tabloid contracted the dangerous inhaled form of the disease. The editor later died, the first such U.S. death since 1976. There are now at least 12 people around the nation who have tested positive for the presence of the anthrax bacteria in their system, including two who developed the disease.

At the same time, local officials also say it is better to err on the side of caution and report any suspicious packages to police.

For example, preliminary testing of a suspicious white powder found Saturday at Wal-Mart in Clarksburg showed no evidence of anthrax.

The powder was found inside a money bag at the store and local authorities were contacted, according to Jessica Moser, a store spokesperson. The supplier of the bags has told Wal-Mart officials that the powder is a normal additive to keep paper money from sticking together and to reduce condensation.

Moser said the store's manager, Frank Lacaria, acted correctly in contacting police.

"When it comes to providing a safe environment for our customers and associates, we always want to err on the side of them," she said.

While the anthrax threat is very real in some parts of the country, as of Monday afternoon there had been no confirmed cases of anthrax or exposure in West Virginia, said Richard Southerton, supervisory special agent in the Clarksburg office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"There is no need to overreact," Southerton said. "People just need to be aware."

Southerton also cautioned residents to use common sense when deciding whether a package is suspicious and should be investigated.

Officials from United Hospital Center and the county's health department said Monday they were ready to handle possible exposures, if needed.

UHC spokeswoman Suzanne Hornor said the hospital has had a disaster plan in place for several years and practices it at least twice a year. The plan covers several contingencies, including disease outbreaks.

Hospital officials across the country have been getting updates from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said Mike Tillman, UHC's vice president of patient services.

"We will respond as needed," Tillman said. "Right now we're reviewing our capabilities to respond and updating those plans based on the information from the CDC."

Randy Moodispaugh, administrator of the Harrison-Clarksburg Health Department, said his staff is prepared to assist in a local response. The county department is not equipped to handle an investigation on its own, he said, so state health department or CDC personnel would have to be called in.

"All we're really in a position to do is give out information," he said.

Staff writer Jim Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com

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