In 2001, workers prepare to test for anthrax at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C., after two workers there died of anthrax inhalation. (Shawn Thew / AFP)
WASHINGTON — The Postal Service is ready to deliver lifesaving drugs to about a quarter of the residents of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the only metropolitan area in the nation where letter carriers have been trained to dispense medication after a large-scale terrorist attack involving biological weapons.
Six years after the government began exploring the idea of using postal workers as rapid-response medicine dispensers and eight months after President Obama ordered government agencies to develop a plan to do so, efforts are underway in six cities to train workers to deliver the drugs needed to counter anthrax or other potentially deadly agents, the White House says.
The White House won't name the six cities, and Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa says she can't talk about whether more cities are interested in the voluntary program.
Cities are not required to adopt the plan, and most have separate plans in place to set up distribution centers in schools, community health centers and other government buildings where people can go to pick up drugs in the event of an attack. The White House, however, says using the Postal Service is a cost-effective and efficient way to create a reliable system for drug distribution in a crisis because postal workers can get drugs to the elderly and others who can't get out easily or wait in long lines.
"We need the capability" to get lifesaving drugs to people in a hurry because in the case of an anthrax attack, in particular, "what we know is: hours matter," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro says.
He says "many cities have expressed interest" in the program, especially now that there is a successful model to follow in Minneapolis.
The nation's capital is among them. "We're still looking at it," says Dena Iverson of the District of Columbia Department of Health.
The projected cost to set up the program and train postal workers: $1 million per city, according to the White House.
In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a series of small-scale anthrax attacks killed five people. Victims can be saved, however, if they begin taking antibiotics soon after they've been exposed.
"It doesn't make any difference if we make all these new antibiotics and vaccines if we don't have ways to get them to people," says Randall Larsen of the WMD Center, a think tank that focuses on bioterrorism.
The idea of having letter carriers deliver drugs to people in their homes has been discussed since 2004.
• In 2006 and 2007, test runs were done in Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston.
• In 2008, the Bush administration issued an emergency order allowing the Food and Drug Administration to approve advance distribution of antibiotics to letter carriers who volunteer for the program and their families so that they would be protected from exposure to anything they encounter on their rounds.
• In December 2009, Obama issued an executive order to jump-start the process. It gave federal agencies 180 days to develop a Postal Service model that could be replicated around the country. It also required the government to meet a demand from the Postal Service: that workers delivering the drugs be accompanied by law enforcement officers to protect them from panicked and potentially violent crowds.
Now, "we're fine if they (terrorists) attack Minneapolis," says James Talent, former vice chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. The Postal Service has "proven they can do it."
With a model in place, the White House says it is working to expand the voluntary program to cities across the country.
Natalie Grant director of Boston's Office of Public Health Preparedness says the city is awaiting instruction from the federal government about how to proceed.
Minneapolis postal worker Chris Wittenburg of the National Association of Letter Carriers says setting up the program is complicated. First, letter carriers have to volunteer, undergo medical tests to make sure they can take the antibiotics, be fitted for masks (no facial hair allowed) and be trained. Routes have to be combined, and systems set up to suspend regular mail delivery in an instant, call postal workers in and send them out carrying boxes of drugs and fliers telling people what to do.
About 60 percent of the city's letter carriers volunteered for the program, which was given a trial run in May.
Workers there can now deliver drugs to 205,000 households, or 575,000 people, within eight hours. Officials plan to expand the program to reach all 735,000 households in the metro area.
The need to get drugs or other antidotes to people fast is a "unique situation," Wittenburg says, "and the Postal Service is really the only organization with the capability to pull it off."
Mimi Hall writes for USA TODAY