Monday, September 26, 2011

So Do We Promote Him To Senator? The Internet Remembers Tommy Thompson's Failed Anthax Crisis Management

As former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson gets set to take a crack at one last big public sector job - - US Senator - - it's worth remembering then-US Health and Human Secretary Thompson's performance under pressure when the country faced an anthrax attack.

Some people may have forgotten the events, and others may have missed it.

The story was reprinted from Newsday:

In Washington, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson
officially had announced the ailing [Bob] Stevens' anthrax case to a nation whose
nerves were still very much on edge from the Sept. 11 attacks. He said of
Stevens' infection that it "appears that this is just an isolated case" and
"there's no evidence of terrorism..."
Stevens' Oct. 5 death brought grim urgency to a CDC investigation that
spanned four states through which he had recently traveled. And it brought the
world's media, numerous state and federal agencies and the White House into the
Thompson once again faced the media, saying the anthrax case was probably
of natural origin, based on something Stevens picked up from drinking from a
South Carolina stream. Anthrax is not a water-borne organism, however, and the
secretary's comment would haunt his department, undermining its credibility for
Thompson, a former governor with no scientific or medical training, issued
orders that all information to the public and media come from his office,
barring government scientists and health experts from providing expert advice
or information.
Here's more about Tommy's management and public information FUBAR, as The Washington Monthly asked at the time:

Spin doctors: Tommy Thompson is not a bioterrorism expert. So why does he play one on TV?

Thompson was, of course, quickly proved wrong. The truth about Stevens's case soon emerged--four more people were killed by anthrax-laced letters sent by a bioterrorist still at large--and with it the embarrassing fact that the Bush administration had essentially botched the job of communicating with the American people.

Famous for its message discipline, the White House had insisted that its HHS secretary be the lone voice on bioterrorism. Yet, from the outset, Thompson had made a host of elementary errors, suggesting, for example, that Stevens might have contracted anthrax by drinking stream water, something health experts and science reporters immediately knew to be false, given the symptoms he displayed.

Such misstatements quickly eroded Thompson's credibility. But reporters had no one else to turn to.

"The feds basically put a gag on the local officials and the state officials, too," recalls Sanjay Bhatt, medical reporter for The Palm Beach Po,. This gag order extended to CDC officials, as well. "All questions were directed to Atlanta or Washington, and for about a week we didn't get any response from either to our questions, which we submitted both in writing and over the phone"

During the first weeks of the largest biological terror attack in U.S. history, when the need for accurate public-health information was at a premium, government experts were effectively silenced.
Time magazine weighed in, too, but I doubt it'll be highlighted in Tommy's campaign bio if he runs for the Senate:
Stevens was an avid outdoorsman, so maybe he picked up a few spores in the wild--perhaps, as Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson famously suggested at a press conference, from drinking water out of a stream.

Thompson's theory never made much sense. It's hard to imagine any scenario by which buried spores could emerge from the ground, mix with drinking water and then lodge in someone's lungs.

And sure enough, a sweep of the American Media building quickly made clear that Stevens had come into contact with anthrax at work, not play. Traces of powdery spores were found on his computer keyboard, in the company mailroom and, ultimately, throughout America Media's Boca Raton, Fla., offices.

Someone had deliberately sent the microbes into the building.
Just so you know...

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