Mail carriers practice bioterror strategies

They delivered boxes in Phila. that would hold medicine.

Posted: June 25, 2007

Accustomed to making deliveries under extreme conditions, mail carriers in Philadelphia faced a new challenge yesterday.

They were part of a bioterror drill staged to test how well postal workers could deliver medical supplies in the event of a real attack.

They were timed as they made "special deliveries" to 52,000 homes in three neighborhoods during the all-day exercise. They went door to door, dropping off empty cardboard boxes that simulated packages of medicine.

"It behooves us to test this now rather than later on," Deputy City Managing Director MaryAnn Marrocolo said.

As part of the city's emergency plan, mail carriers would deliver free medical supplies such as antibiotics in the event of an attack involving biological or chemical agents such as anthrax. Centers would also be set up across the city where residents could pick up medicine.

Walking routes in the Fairmount, Germantown and Mayfair sections, the mail carriers delivered empty white boxes and leaflets explaining the drill. Each mail carrier was accompanied by a police officer.

They were greeted with surprise by some residents caught off-guard by the Sunday delivery. A few people were unaware of the drill and were uneasy about receiving the boxes.

"It was alarming," Troy Copper, 27, said after a box was delivered in his Fairmount neighborhood. "I felt like maybe [city officials] know something they weren't telling us."

Marrocolo said city officials had no information about any possible bioterror threats. Philadelphia is the second city after Seattle to test using mail carriers to deliver medical supplies in such an event, she said.

At least six other cities - Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and San Diego - are considering similar emergency plans and sent delegations to observe yesterday's drill.

"The drill is a good idea because it would probably help save a lot of lives," said Neikie Wilson, 31, sitting on her steps on 20th Street. "Ever since 9/11, anything is possible."

City and federal officials began planning the drill in November, but there were a few glitches yesterday.

In some cases, the boxes - which measure about 3 by 13/4 by 11/2 inches - would not fit in a mail slot or a screen door was locked. The carriers skipped those houses yesterday but in an emergency they would have left the box on the doorstep, officials said.

Mail carriers and police officers wore their regular uniforms yesterday, but in an emergency they would have donned protective gear, officials said. In a real emergency, they also would receive medication before going out to make the deliveries.

In the event of a bioterror attack, each medicine box would contain about 20 pills, enough for a typical household for several days, said Dr. Bill Raub of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Residents would be urged to take shelter in their homes and wait for a delivery.

"There will be enough medicine for everyone," Raub said.

Contact staff writer Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or

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