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Sunday, 21 October, 2001, 00:02 GMT 01:02 UK
Living with bioterror
Capitol cordoned off
Several parts of Capitol Hill were found to be infected
Paul Reynolds

It was Tuesday morning, another bright day on Capitol Hill, where the great white dome of the Capitol itself was framed by trees turning gently autumnal. Yet there was a sense of the unusual everywhere.

The day before, we had been told by President Bush himself that Senator Tom Daschle, the mild-mannered leader of the majority Democrats, had received an anthrax-infected letter.

The Capitol had been closed to public tours, new concrete tubs were being put in position, some with their plastic wrapping still on, to guard against car bombs. And suddenly what had seemed remote was very close, and what theoretical was potentially real.

The threat of the unseen bacteria produces, despite one's best efforts to follow reason, a degree of uncertainty.

Tom Daschle's office building, a couple of blocks from Congress, was not, to my surprise, completely closed. There was the usual search at the entrance.

Swabs

On the right, in the central covered courtyard, one noticed yellow tape blocking off some lifts and it turned out that that corner of the building which housed Daschle's office had been sealed off.

Senator Tom Daschle
Senator Daschle: Not an obvious target
But dozens of staff were lining up, waiting to be given nasal swabs, and these were the folk I wanted to talk to.

There was no panic. A bright staffer from Senator Joe Liberman's office, named Jennifer Bond, was determined to sound determined.

"Proud to be an American and proud to serve in the Senate" was her attitude. "And by the way," she added, "good for the Brits" - something one hears quite often in Washington these days.

Standing next to her, Joel Widder from the Senate Appropriations Committee was a little less enthusiastic. He was annoyed at being kept from his work. And work on the Appropriations Committee is very important.

Scare spreads

The next morning, the leaves were being driven by a wild west wind.

There was already talk by the time I arrived that Congress was going to close. Then what had been a well-organised response began to get out of control.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Denis Hastert - a Republican former wrestling coach not given to histrionics, unlike some in that profession - announced that indeed the House would close.

And he suggested that the anthrax bug might have got into the Senate ventilation system, even into the tunnels which connect the Congress with its surrounding office buildings.


I felt a bit of a fool, but there was mutual encouragement from others waiting with me in the same doubt

This was alarming stuff. The wind seemed rather cold at that point.

Then news spread that 25 or so of Tom Daschle's staff had tested positive for exposure to anthrax.

The calm Mr Daschle, speaking to an increasingly confused media group on the grass outside the main entrance, said that the Senate would not be closing. And he had with him several experts who announced that there was no sign of anthrax in that ventilation system or in those tunnels.

Media alarm

By then it was too late for many in the press corps. They had lost confidence in assurances and predictions. A cameraman next to me said that he had been in Mr Daschle's office building the previous day, like me in fact, and had been swabbed that morning.

I asked others. Several had done the same. But there was no risk, I countered - the swabs were being taken in that very building. "Not any more," was the reply.

To swab or not to swab? I trudged over to the building where these were now being offered and there joined 300 others, stretching in a seemingly never-ending line along the tall-ceilinged corridors.

Long wait

I felt a bit of a fool, but there was mutual encouragement from others waiting with me in the same doubt. There was an intern from the office of a North Dakotan Senator, whose rooms were in the same building as Senator Daschle's, though not in the sealed-off part.

Cipro antibiotic
Prompt treatment with Cipro is effective
There was a lobbyist from the food industry, who had also been there the previous day. His boss was further up the queue, under orders from his wife to be swabbed and get the antibiotics - Cipro, to be exact.

There was also a student, whose connection to danger was simply that his roommates worked in Congress. Nobody tried telling him that anthrax is not contagious.

The line took three and a half hours. Then there was form-filling and we were handed a tipped swab, alarmingly long, which a young naval technician inserted up the nose till the eyes watered. And we moved on to listen to the advice of a naval pharmacist, who handed us six days' supply of the Cipro. Just a precaution, he said, until you get your results at the weekend, which, he implied, would probably be negative.

I said goodbye to my temporary acquaintances, noticed that the lobbyist's boss was looking very pleased, and clutched my little plastic bag of pills.

I took the first one that evening, and next day, wished I hadn't, as the threat is obviously so small. But I've started, so I'll finish.

See also:

18 Oct 01 | Americas
Bio-labs face tight security
17 Oct 01 | Americas
Anthrax: Vehicle for spreading fear
20 Oct 01 | Americas
Search for US anthrax source narrows
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