GW awaits results of anthrax tests

Reports of possible anthrax cases have come in from around campus while GW awaits delayed anthrax test results from its mailrooms.

GW has received at least two reports of possible anthrax on campus in the past week, at the Marvin Center ground floor computer lab and in the men’s locker room at the Health and Wellness Center. Both proved to be false alarms. Joseph Yohe, assistant director of risk management and insurance, said there have been a total of 30 possible reports in the past three weeks – all false alarms.

Yohe said he responded to the Marvin Center incident and saw an object “the size of a bubble gum package.” He said the inside was a soft, Play-Doh or cake mix type of material.
University Police Director Dolores Stafford said the package was inside a backpack found on a computer desk, and that a staff member reported the incident UPD, which evacuated the building for about an hour.

Yohe said the substance “was wrapped in plastic, tightly sealed and fastened at end.”

“It didn’t fit the profile for anthrax,” he said. He said he thought it could have been a chemical threat but then thought it would have burned through the wrapping if it were a hazardous chemical. UPD took the package as evidence, and Yohe said he thought it was taken to Ross Hall to be analyzed.

Senior Chad Gray was at Ben and Jerry’s in the ground floor when the computer lab was evacuated. He said students were forced to leave, but he said police officers did not seem worried.

Gray said one of the officers who had responded was next to him in line at Ben and Jerry’s.

“He was getting a chocolate shake, so I wasn’t too worried,” Gray said.

Yohe said there was also an incident at the Health and Wellness Center. A “powdery substance” was found on a water fountain in the men’s locker room. Yohe said risk management officials poured bleach on the affected area.

“Our general protocol (is that) we treat any of these as if they are infectious material or anthrax,” Yohe said. “Our immediate action is to disinfect it and kill it using bleach.”

He said bleach will kill any biohazard material, and that if there is credible evidence of a threat the substance will be taken as evidence and tested.

Yohe said the University has not yet received results of the anthrax tests in the mailroom.

“The latest info they have given me is that we’ll have something by the end of week, but they haven’t promised anything,” Yohe said.

He said the delay is due in part to a backup at testing labs. The University was originally supposed to receive the test results last Friday.

“These labs are overwhelmed with sheer volume,” Yohe said. He said GW is using the Centers for Disease Control to do the testing of GW’s two mailrooms. The main campus’s mail room is located in the Support and Auxiliary Services building at 2035 F St., and Mount Vernon’s mail facility, which is also being tested, is in Ames Hall.

Yohe also said the CDC changed testing guidelines about a week and a half ago, which further contributed to the delay.

“Midstream they just changed the rules on how samples are analyzed,” he said. “(This means) more problems and more backup of labs.” He said the tests are now more sensitive.

Yohe said the University’s mail would not be tested again unless there was a reason to do so.

“We’re going to wait to see what the results have to say,” he said. “If it’s prudent to do further testing we’ll do that.”

Despite the delay, Yohe said GW’s choice for testing was a good one. He said other services wouldn’t even come to campus for three weeks.

“We’re fortunate to get anyone in here to do the testing,” he said. He said the tests would cost $1,500, much less than other firms that had quoted prices up to $8,000.

U.S. Postal Service spokesperson Deborah Yackley said GW’s mail goes through one of two facilities in Maryland, Capitol Heights or Gaithersburg now that the Brentwood mail facility is closed.

Yackley said Environmental Protection Agency and CDC officials are almost ready to begin the clean-up process at Brentwood, but that it probably would not begin for a few days.

Yohe said he hoped the results from GW’s facilities come in soon.

“If we don’t get something, we’re going to get concerned and look at other avenues,” Yohe said. He added they might get their samples back and go to another lab if results did not come in soon.

“We just want reliable results to tell the community,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to be careful about that.”

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