Area health officials were not notified for five days that sensors on the Mall had detected a potentially dangerous bacterium there last month because subsequent tests were not conclusively positive, a federal official said yesterday.
The Department of Homeland Security delayed in alerting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the same reason, said Richard Besser, who directs the CDC's coordinating office for terrorism preparedness and emergency response. More than half a dozen sensors showed the presence of tularemia bacteria the morning after thousands of people gathered on the Mall for a book festival and antiwar rally, yet the CDC was not contacted for at least 72 hours.
Testing never identified all the definitive markers for which scientists were looking, and officials were wary of issuing a false alarm, Besser said. He called the entire incident "highly unusual," but he acknowledged that it would prompt the two agencies to review their protocol and the timeliness of their response "to make sure the system doesn't have any flaws in it."
"It really will cause us to look at the system and say, 'Should things have been different?' " Besser said in a phone interview.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) has suggested that the answer is yes. In letters he sent Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and CDC Director Julie Gerberding, he called the notification time frame "alarming" and asked for an accounting of the procedures triggered when the government's "BioWatch network" senses a biological agent.
His questions focused on what each agency knew and when it knew it, as well as which local and state officials were called and when. "Why weren't these officials notified immediately following the detection?" Davis wrote.
D.C. Health Director Gregg A. Pane, who learned of the situation in a conference call Friday morning, said he would have liked to have been involved sooner. Hours after being alerted by the CDC, he and his counterparts across the Washington region put out an announcement for the public.
"I wish they'd bring us in earlier," he said yesterday, with the "retrospective scope" clearly in place. "There's got to be a level of trust and communication" among the entities and layers of government, he said.
As of yesterday, local and federal health officials said they had confirmed no cases of tularemia from the Mall gathering and, through medical surveillance, had not found any spikes in possible symptoms. Although the germ that causes tularemia is highly infectious, the disease itself is not passed from person to person and can be easily treated with antibiotics. Left untreated, it can be fatal.
Besser said that if the initial evaluation had revealed true positives, the laboratory would have immediately contacted Homeland Security, which would have immediately brought CDC and local health agencies into the discussion.
Instead, as late as Thursday, CDC officials expected final testing to disprove the presence of the bacteria. "So we didn't really think there was a need to alert [area] public health officials," he said.
In his letter, Davis requested specifics about the bacteria levels ultimately detected and the government's plan to inform the public of risk. "How do you monitor the thousands of people who visited the affected areas?" he asked.
A Homeland Security spokeswoman did not return calls to comment on the issues Davis raised.
Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.