Originally created 10/17/01

Augusta experts want powders tested locally



Faced with an overwhelmed state laboratory, Augusta health officials are hoping to do their own testing with reports of suspicious powders continuing to roll in Tuesday.

Richmond County fire officials reported a dozen calls by mid-afternoon, to go with 25 to 30 on Monday.

So far, none of the tests on suspicious powders have come back from the state laboratory, despite an expected one- to two-day turnaround, said East Central Health District Director Frank Rumph. It might be because when local law enforcement is turning in samples in Atlanta, they are first being turned over to the FBI, which examines them and assigns them a number before returning them to the state lab, Dr. Rumph said.

"That's another step in the process," Dr. Rumph said. He already has talked with officials at University and Medical College of Georgia hospitals about using their laboratories for testing.

"We just have to get the mechanism for how we get specimens there, who pays for them and that kind of thing," Dr. Rumph said.

Those kinds of calls haven't overwhelmed local responders, but they do seem to be coming in back-to-back, said Augusta-Richmond County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Rogers.

While the hazardous materials response unit has donned its spacesuit-like uniforms to collect some of the substances found at area businesses, others are being identified after talking to employees, he said.

For instance, the owners of Weinberger's Furniture Showcase found a substance Tuesday morning in front of the warehouse on Reynolds Industrial Boulevard and called 911. An employee arrived soon after and told officials it was poison put down to kill mice.

Fire officials also were called to Broad and Ninth streets about 6:20 a.m. where television station WAGT (Channel 26) employee Frank Perry said he had discovered a half-cup of white powder heaped at the front door while preparing a live shot.

"It looked like talcum powder or baking soda," said Battalion Chief Michael Weathers with the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department. "I personally believe it is (a prank), but the way things are nowadays, you can't assume."

Inconvenience is becoming a factor in many of the cases. On Broad Street, traffic was narrowed to one lane and the sidewalk was blocked off for about two hours during the investigation outside the station, Chief Weathers said.

First Union Bank shut down its Gordon Highway branch all day after an employee found a white substance on money. A note taped to the window directed customers to the Peach Orchard Road branch.

"We've been running up and down the road," Chief Weathers said.

Columbia County Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker said many of the cases are hoaxes fueled by hysteria over the recent news reports about anthrax.

"I think that if you start looking hard enough you start seeing things, and finding things and fearing things," Ms. Tucker said. "Pranksters may think this is funny, but this has put a lot of fear into a lot of people and drained a lot of resources to respond to these things ...

"If people who have real emergencies need those same resources we're using out on five of these calls, it's not funny."

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft promised Tuesday that those who fake anthrax or other terrorist scares will face federal prosecution.

False threats of anthrax attacks are "grotesque transgressions of the public trust," Mr. Ashcroft said.

The FBI has received more than 2,300 reports of incidents or suspected incidents involving anthrax. Most of them have been false alarms or practical jokes, FBI Director Robert Mueller said.

VACCINE AVAILABILITY

Local health departments have received a number of calls about vaccines, and some of the callers are upset when they find they can't get a smallpox vaccination or the anthrax vaccine, said East Central Health District Director Frank Rumph.

Only the military has access to the anthrax vaccine, Dr. Rumph said.

Smallpox vaccinations are not available because the disease has been considered wiped out since 1977, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Routine vaccination for smallpox ended in 1972.

Another requested vaccine is for cholera. The disease has not been prevalent in the United States since the advent of modern wastewater treatment, the CDC said. The vaccine for cholera is not available in the United States and is not even recommended for travelers to cholera-endemic areas "because of the brief and incomplete immunity it offers," the CDC said.

Staff writer Melissa Hall contributed to this article. Associated Press reports also were used.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh and Tom Corwin at (706) 724-0851.