Congress Plans for the Worst

Posted February 11, 2003 at 6:49pm

Rising fears of a biological or chemical attack on the nation’s capital have spurred Congressional leaders to begin scheduling closed-door meetings with health and law-enforcement officials to discuss the consequences of such a catastrophic event.

House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood is scheduled to brief Democrats and Republicans today about steps being taken to secure the Capitol and ensure Members’ safety if an attack occurs.

“The Sergeant-at-Arms will offer advice, recommendations and update people,” said House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio).

Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he will ask Dr. John Eisold, a Navy admiral who serves as Congress’ attending physician, to brief the leadership on how the Capitol medical community will respond should terrorists detonate a biological or chemical device.

“I am going to ask him to come in and brief leadership of what is the status here in Washington, because a lot of people are asking if Washington is targeted and New York is targeted, what should you do?” said Frist, himself a physician.

So far, officials insisted, there is no master plan to inoculate Members for smallpox or other contagions, said a spokesman for the Attending Physician’s office, who noted the office plans to follow guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“It is not recommended for the general public and that general public is Members, visitors and staffers,” the spokesman said. “We are not going to vaccinate those people until the vaccine is recommended.”

But Congressional officials are in the process of identifying Capitol Hill’s “first responders,” such as Capitol Police officers and medical personnel who will receive the vaccine “very soon,” the spokesman said.

While there is no plan at this time to inoculate Members for smallpox, President Pro Tem Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he has been offered the vaccine. Stevens is third in the line of presidential succession behind Vice President Cheney and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

“I did discuss it,” Stevens said Tuesday. “I have had smallpox vaccinations in the past and it is sort of left in the position of, ‘It’s available to me, it’s not mandatory for me.’

“It’s at the Capitol Physician’s Office if I want to get it.”

A spokesman for Hastert said he was not aware of whether the Illinois Republican had been offered the vaccination.

The Attending Physician’s spokesman said the office does not stockpile the smallpox vaccine, or other vaccines for that matter, but added the Capitol’s doctors could have it in their office “within an hour.”

Even though Frist expects to be serving in a medical role should an attack occur, the heart and lung transplant surgeon said he is not sure if he personally will be vaccinated.

“Probably I would be out administering if something happens because there are so few people” with medical training around the Capitol complex, said Frist. “But I haven’t made a decision about myself as a physician, as somebody who is a licensed medical doctor.”

So far, several Members said there doesn’t appear to be a growing desire among their colleagues to receive an inoculation.

“At this point, the focus has been the health care workers, and nothing urgent has been presented to Members to say they should get the vaccine,” said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who helped lead the House continuity of government effort. “It may happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Still, if offered the chance to receive the vaccine, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) said he would take it.

Ney said he, too, would likely get vaccinated, but added, “These will be individual decisions by Members and staff.”

Yet others, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said they would likely take a pass.

“I think it ought to be up to any individual to choose if he wants it or not, and I would choose not to take it,” said Grassley, who added he did not have fond memories of the shot when he received it as young man.

Smallpox is a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there is no specific treatment. The last recorded U.S. case of smallpox, named for the rash it causes on the face and body, was in 1949.

Already President Bush and military personnel have received the inoculation, but the president — who was vaccinated Dec. 21 — has recommended against giving it to the general public at this time.

The vaccine has not been widely administered since 1972.

The Bush administration has said it could vaccinate the entire U.S. population against smallpox within five days of an outbreak.

But concerns about the disease rang anew after federal officials on Monday issued their firmest warning to date when they urged every American to take detailed precautions against a terrorist attack. Officials urged every household — in anticipation of a chemical, biological or radiological attack — to stock up on water and food and designate a room in their homes as a safe haven.

After reading about the new government recommendations on preparing for a disaster, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said he had not changed any behavior and was not stocking up on extra water, canned goods or duct tape.

“I have plenty of TV dinners in the fridge to get me by,” DeLay said.

House GOP Leadership Chairman Rob Portman (Ohio) said he also had no plans to change his daily activities, although he scheduled a briefing for his staffers later this week to make sure they are familiar with the House office buildings’ exit routes and understand how to put on their government-issued gas masks.

“It’s important to know the procedures and stay calm and just make sure no one gets too complacent,” Portman said.

House Select Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman (D-Calif.), has already held a meeting with her Congressional staff to review emergency procedures, and is stocking her office with specific supplies including food, water and flashlights.

And Harman has asked Hastert to convene a Members-only meeting on the House floor to encourage them to hold similar meetings with their staffers.

“We placed a call to the Speaker’s office,” said Harman’s Chief of Staff, Maura Policelli. “She thinks given the tense circumstances that all Members should convene for a moment on the floor and be advised to do something in their offices.”

With the dark cloud of a possible terrorist attack hanging over people’s heads, Ney sought to soothe fears by stressing that the Capitol Police and Sergeant-at-Arms have already made progress toward improving security at the Capitol.

In particular, Ney said they are making permanent the pop-up barriers to shut off access to surrounding streets, increasing the police foot patrols and making sure Members and all staff have safety masks in case of a chemical attack.

“Nothing is perfect, but I feel like we’re taking every step humanly possible to battle anything that could happen to the Capitol complex,” he said.

The heightened alert, though, has prompted some Members to map out escape plans in the event an attack occurs.

“I gathered my little family over the weekend [and said] if something like a dirty bomb went off in Washington and we are all spread out we would go to a rendezvous point,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who added other Senators have said they are holding similar discussions with their families.

The smallpox vaccine, which carries its own set of risks, provides a high level of immunity to the disease for about three to five years.

After that, the immunity begins to wane. With a second vaccination, a person’s immunity spans longer than the initial three to five years.

Since the vaccine has not been widely administered in 30 years, most Members would need to receive the vaccine again for it to be effective against an attack.

Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.