A report published Friday examined U.S. government programs in place to respond to a bioterror attack and the threat of anthrax as a weapon. The report, based on findings from a study conducted by the Institute of Medicine, said that an effective response to a large-scale anthrax attack would require planned coordination on a local level and the ability to get antibiotics to those affected.
With similar ideas in mind, the President signed an executive order in 2009 directing Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to come up with a system for U.S. cities to respond to a bioterror attack by dispensing antibiotics and implementing other countermeasures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Cities Ready Initiative (CRI) has been exploring the potential for using this type of system to deliver oral antibiotics in the aftermath of a bioterrror attack. The CRI is a federally funded effort to prepare major U.S. cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas to effectively respond to a large scale bioterrorist event by dispensing antibiotics to their entire identified population within 48 hours of the decision to do so, according to the CDC Web site. Within that initiative, the plan is to use the USPS because it already has the resources and is an organization that already delivers routinely directly to households.
The USPS has the capability to deliver mail to every residential address in the country, allowing it to rapidly distribute initial doses of antibiotics to a large area in a short amount of time. The program would rely on existing postal workers who volunteer for the duty.
A pilot for the program in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area estimated that 179 volunteer carriers, each covering two routes, could distribute required medicines to 575,000 people in 205,000 households in a regular working day. These volunteer carriers would already have a supply of medicines for themselves and their families so they could administer them and immediately head out should they be called upon in an emergency. This type of distribution of antibiotics by postal workers would be a supplement to help reduce strain on preset distribution sites.
One problem with relying on the postal service going forward is that the USPS has its own financial woes, which have led it over the past four years to reduce its workforce by 110,000 employees. The postal service is also discussing closing thousands of local offices and reducing delivery days, all of which could limit its ability to fulfill any agreement to deliver antibiotics in an emergency.
Officials say there won’t be any impact, however. Jude Plessas, countermeasures distribution and delivery manager at the USPS, explains: