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Highlights

In September and October 2001, at least four letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to news media personnel and two U.S. Senators, leading to the first cases of bioterrorism-related anthrax in the United States. The contaminated letters, which were delivered through the U.S. mail system, caused 22 cases of anthrax, 5 of them fatal. Nine postal employees associated with two postal facilities that processed the letters--Trenton in New Jersey and Brentwood in Washington, D.C.--contracted anthrax and two Brentwood employees died. The U.S. Postal Service closed Trenton and Brentwood, but other contaminated postal facilities remained open. GAO's review covers Trenton, Brentwood, and three of these other facilities. As requested, this report describes (1) the factors considered in deciding whether to close the five facilities, (2) the information communicated to postal employees about health risk and the extent of the facilities' contamination, and (3) how lessons learned from the response to the contamination could be used in future situations.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Postal Service To help ensure that the Postal Service has accurate, clear, comprehensive, and up-to-date guidance for responding to an emergency, the Postmaster General should, working with other agency officials as appropriate, revise its December 2003 Interim Guidelines to define key terms, such as "suspected release" and "strong suspicion" of contamination.
Closed - Not Implemented
While USPS provided us with vast portions of its Integrated Emergence Management Plan, according to postal officials, the plan is not expected to be finalized this fiscal year. Furthermore, the context in which our recommendations were made has changed. Our recommendations were made prior to USPS developing and installing biological detectors in its mail processing facilities. USPS considers the biological detectors to be extremely reliable in detecting anthrax and preventing potential contamination downstream. Nearly all of the portions of the plan we reviewed deal with what USPS and others would do if a biological detector activates at a mail processing facility. While USPS could have provided additional guidance on what it would do in a facility without the biological detectors, such as a post office, it chose not to.
United States Postal Service To help ensure that the Postal Service has accurate, clear, comprehensive, and up-to-date guidance for responding to an emergency, the Postmaster General should, working with other agency officials as appropriate, revise its December 2003 Interim Guidelines to ensure that any references to earlier guidance are still applicable.
Closed - Not Implemented
While USPS provided us with vast portions of its Integrated Emergence Management Plan, according to postal officials, the plan is not expected to be finalized this fiscal year. Furthermore, the context in which our recommendations were made has changed. Our recommendations were made prior to USPS developing and installing biological detectors in its mail processing facilities. USPS considers the biological detectors to be extremely reliable in detecting anthrax and preventing potential contamination downstream. Nearly all of the portions of the plan we reviewed deal with what USPS and others would do if a biological detector activates at a mail processing facility. While USPS could have provided additional guidance on what it would do in a facility without the biological detectors, such as a post office, it chose not to.
United States Postal Service To help ensure that the Postal Service has accurate, clear, comprehensive, and up-to-date guidance for responding to an emergency, the Postmaster General should, working with other agency officials as appropriate, revise its December 2003 Interim Guidelines to clarify the actions that the Postal Service would take under various scenarios, such as when (1) the Postal Service receives preliminary evidence of anthrax contamination or (2) a postal employee is diagnosed with either inhalation or cutaneous anthrax.
Closed - Not Implemented
While USPS provided us with vast portions of its Integrated Emergence Management Plan, according to postal officials, the plan is not expected to be finalized this fiscal year. Furthermore, the context in which our recommendations were made has changed. Our recommendations were made prior to USPS developing and installing biological detectors in its mail processing facilities. USPS considers the biological detectors to be extremely reliable in detecting anthrax and preventing potential contamination downstream. Nearly all of the portions of the plan we reviewed deal with what USPS and others would do if a biological detector activates at a mail processing facility. While USPS could have provided additional guidance on what it would do in a facility without the biological detectors, such as a post office, it chose not to.
United States Postal Service To help ensure (1) the availability of timely and appropriate emergency medical treatment and (2) that medical providers receive timely payment for emergency medical services provided to postal employees exposed to anthrax or other threatening substances, the Postal Service should establish and meet a definitive time frame for developing interim policies and procedures on paying for such services.
Closed - Not Implemented
The Postal Service believes that the ultimate responsibility for the availability of emergency medical treatment, including the payment for such services, lies with the Department of Homeland Security, state and municipal public health departments, and employee health plans--not the Postal Service. Nevertheless, the Postal Service reported that it continues to work with federal, state, and local first responders to plan for the availability of medical treatment in the event of another bioterrorism attack.

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