Thursday, October 18, 2001

Bioterror gets personal


Capitol staffers line up for tests

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Anthrax is creepy enough in theory — in that kind of horror-flick-never-happen-here kind of way.

        But when you have to wait in line for an hour so a medical technician can stick a swab up your nose to see if you have been exposed to the deadly bacteria, well, it becomes something else.

        “If it wasn't personal before, it is now,” grumbled Scott Milburn, a spokesman for Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. “I fully expect my results to come back negative. But I'm really angry.”

        The Ohio senator's suites are in the Hart Senate Office Building, a few floors down from where at least 31 staffers and Capitol police officers have been exposed to anthrax from an anonymous letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

        For the people involved, it almost doesn't matter whether some freak in Trenton or Osama bin Laden himself is responsible.

        Life has changed. The simple routine of going to work in the morning has been interrupted by barricades, armed guards and warnings of biological terror in the mail.

        Police tape cordoned off a row of elevators and officers patrolled the hallways in the Hart building, a cool marble block of Senate offices with an enormous black metal sculpture by Alexander Calder in the atrium. A thick line of staffers clogged a second-floor hallway, waiting for their anthrax tests.

        Young Senate aides, serious and smartly dressed, walked by with folders under their arms as if nothing unusual had happened. Black humor ruled.

        “How are you?” one staffer asked. “I don't know,” her friend said. “I guess I'll find out Friday when my test results come in.”

        Inside Mr. Voinovich's offices, telephones rang and appointments were kept. Six aides who worked near Mr. Daschle's offices had been tested Tuesday and, by late Wednesday morning, the rest of the staff, including the senator himself, had decided to get tested.

        Mr. Milburn held up a plastic bag with a handful of white tablets of the antibiotic Cipro he's taking as a precaution.

        Next door, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and most of his staff also decided to get tested. Around the corner, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., had been told to leave his offices Tuesday because the suites are on the same ventilation system as Mr. Daschle's. Mr. Lugar and all of his staff had been tested.

        The Senate chose to remain in session Thursday. But with the House adjourned until Tuesday, lawmakers made plans to return to their congressional districts. Staffers arranged to work from home for the next few days.

        Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said House leaders were right to remove staff and support workers so offices could be inspected, but that lawmakers should have stayed in session. The House was working on aviation security and an economic-stimulus package in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

        “I'm concerned that shutting down the House, even for a few days, sends the wrong message to those who want to instill fear and harm our country,” he said.

        Joe Clabes, a legislative aide to Rep. Ken Lucas, D-Ky., said he also would have liked to stay on the job.

        “I'm not really rattled by it,” said Mr. Clabes of Fort Mitchell. “I have faith that the authorities will get it done. I'd hate to think we would stop working.”

        Faith Cleeter, an assistant to Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said she called her parents in Blue Ash Monday as soon as she heard about the anthrax in Mr. Daschle's offices.

        “I knew they were going to worry,” she said. Ms. Cleeter, who has worked on Capitol Hill since January, has been briefed on security and warned to look for anything strange in the mail.

        But she said the terrorist attacks or the anthrax scares have not caused her any doubts about public service.

        “It's like a personal attack and you feel like you're supposed to do something,” she said. “It encouraged me to want to stay here and serve my country.”

       



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