New task force not enough to calm fears

Recent anthrax scares and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 prompted Yale President Richard Levin to create a task force last week to evaluate the current state of campus security. Although the task force has made it a priority to ensure a calm, rational response to a possible outbreak, some local health officials think the public — Yale students included — might not be so quick to abandon their fears.

The task force includes members from the highest ranks of the Yale Police Department, Yale-New Haven Hospital, and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety. Over the past week, the group met with the FBI to evaluate current procedures for handling suspicious parcels and hazardous materials. Levin also publicized the intentions of the task force in an e-mail to the Yale community.

Paul Kowalski, New Haven’s director of environmental health, said that his office has fielded many frantic calls regarding possible exposure to anthrax. He said people are often too quick to call the health department as soon as they see any trace of white powder.

“The heightened awareness [to bacterial contamination] is less than desirable,” Kowalski said. “Not everything is anthrax.”

But Dr. Stephanie Spangler, the task force’s deputy director, said she thinks that student response has been “remarkably calm.” Spangler, the deputy provost for biomedical and health affairs, said that she feels the Yale community as a whole has reacted very sensibly and that this rational response will make it easier to move beyond any sort of public hysteria.

Dr. Paul Genecin, a member of the task force and director of University Health Services, said that whatever worries exist on campus are due in part to the misconception that Yale is more susceptible to an anthrax outbreak than other locations. He said students have little reason to be concerned about contracting anthrax.

“We’re more likely to see morbidity from the flu than from anthrax [on campus],” Genecin said.

But Levin’s task force is not taking any chances. The task force will convene again today to examine possible gaps in Yale’s emergency response plans and to pinpoint areas where tangentially related Yale offices — such as the Yale Police Department and University Health Services can join forces to increase preparedness and discuss preventative measures.

Genecin said he envisions the group as a partnership between University offices and branches of state and local government.

“The responsibility for dealing with any kind of potential outbreak doesn’t rest in one office alone,” Genecin said. “Once we hear of a possible outbreak, we need the state’s cooperation to run tests and see what kind of substance we’re dealing with. If it should become a crime scene, then we need the police and law enforcement officials’ cooperation, too.”

Both Spangler and Genecin agree that Yale is significantly more prepared for an emergency than its peer institutions. Spangler added that Yale is at an advantage because of its links to cutting-edge biotechnology companies and Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Although no one is certain what the role of the task force will be if the current germ scare dies down, Genecin said the group’s mission needs to be sustained.

“It’s always a good idea to have preventative and responsive policies under constant review,” Genecin said. “That way we’ll be sure we won’t be caught unprepared for something that might come our way.”

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