BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In a week of relentless Anthrax coverage much of the anxiety has centered on the confusing and contradictory information flowing out of a variety of government offices. Until recently we heard little from the CDC and the Surgeon General and hardly at all from the newly-created director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge. Mostly we heard from Tommy Thompson the head of the Department of Health and Human Services and his grasp on the information seemed to some disconcertingly upbeat. For instance when Robert Stevens [sp?], photo editor at the Florida-based Sun tabloid was found to be infected, Thompson opined that he might have contracted it by drinking from a stream, and on another point just this week Ted Koppel on Nightline felt compelled to correct him.
TOMMY THOMPSON: And we've been able to respond to the outbreak of Anthrax in Florida and in New York and in, now in Washington -- and we've been, we've been there! So I, I don't think the, the-- I have been too optimistic. I think that we've been able to respond!
TED KOPPEL: You do realize when you talk about the "outbreaks of Anthrax--"
TOMMY THOMPSON: Yes--
QUESTION: -- you haven't had an "outbreak of Anthrax" yet. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
TOMMY THOMPSON: No, we haven't.
TED KOPPEL: You haven't had a major Anthrax attack yet.
TOMMY THOMPSON: That is true.
TED KOPPEL: I mean, in the event of a major Anthrax attack-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Late this week Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge finally stepped up to the microphones to calm the public's fears, but some believe the damage to the government's credibility will be hard to repair. Surgeon General David Satcher, appointed by the Clinton administration was quiet in the early days of the crisis but has been on the record frequently this week. He joins us now. Dr. Satcher thanks for coming on.
DR. SATCHER: Thank you, Brooke. I'm delighted to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ann Smithson [sp?] who is a bio-terrorism expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center told the New York Times that one of the lessons drawn from Florida is that the first thing Americans need to hear is a voice that speaks from knowledge, not from hyperbole. The country was attacked and traumatized on September 11th, but the scars created in recent weeks may actually be much more difficult to recover from!
DR. SATCHER: I would be very concerned if people felt that they were being intentionally misled. I don't think Secretary Thompson has made any attempt to mislead anybody. He is a very positive person, and he has rightfully I think tried to do his part to say to American people stay calm, don't panic -- Anthrax is-- is certainly not contagious, but as somebody said, fear of Anthrax can be so contagious that it can really disrupt the entire system of public health. You know most of us who go through training in public health, it takes us a long time to understand the nature of screening tests and a percent of false positive and predictability of tests -- all of those things are very important in understanding how to interpret a given test. So when you try to communicate that you just say "preliminary," and then you hope that people hear that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What makes the situation so complicated is that Anthrax is not only a national -- or a potential outbreak of a dangerous disease, but a national security crisis involving an ongoing federal investigation! So how do national security issues affect the health message that you and the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services are trying to send?
DR. SATCHER: I don't know anybody in the public health system who would stand in the way of the criminal justice system in finding out who's doing this, and if that means delaying certain information because it is privileged information for the criminal investigation, I think we support that, and I think, I think that's understandable to people! It is not the typical public health investigation. It is a partnership between public health and justice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you think that that's happened then -some information may have been delayed?
DR. SATCHER:Well we have, we have certainly said and, and Secretary s-- Thompson has said on several occasions this is the purview of the FBI, of the Attorney General. It's a part of the criminal investigations, so we're not prepared to talk about strains right now except to say that they're all sensitive to the antibiotics that we have available to us. But we don't want to get into that -- when people say well, could this have all been made by the same person, et cetera -- well that kind of information is a part of the criminal investigation!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What do you think about the media's message? It seems to be one of Anthrax anxiety -reports of Anthrax-related panic - people stockpiling cipro - TV commentators opining on the dangers--
DR. SATCHER: I don't think the media has been perfect, just as we haven't been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me a few examples?
DR. SATCHER: Several people have reported on this whole recent issue about the-- the unusual nature of this organism found in Senator Daschle's office, however the laboratory at Yosemerate [sp?] has not yet reported, and it's important to keep that in mind. And until that laboratory reports on the nature of this organism, it is very premature to get people upset and panicked about the weaponization of Anthrax, and the scientists tried to communicate that it was preliminary tests, but it's not always heard by the media. That doesn't make as great a story!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You conceded that the information flow has been-- problematic at the beginning of this crisis and you say that it's getting better. Can you tell me some of the specific ways you think it's getting better, that it's improving?
DR. SATCHER: Well the reason my deputy, Surgeon General Ken Mort Soogar [sp?], is stationed on Capitol Hill is that that is a part of our response to what happened there. Because we have learned how important it is to have that level of expertise on site so that every time any press conference is done, you know, that level of expertise is right there. We have people there from the CDC. I think that's a step up in our communication.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you feel when you see the perpetual logo Anthrax Anxiety on MSNBC?
DR. SATCHER:I have mixed feelings, because I am of the opinion that a certain level of anxiety is appropriate here. Okay? I'm of the opinion that-- just as we have put the public health service on high alert, the American people do in fact need to be on high alert, and we don't need to be doing business as usual when it comes to the way we deal with public health issues. I mean we have gotten really lax in terms of hand washing for examples - if you don't believe it, just watch people when they go to the bathroom; how we cook foods as to minimize the risk of bacteria surviving the cooking --all of these things could be very critical in dealing with a bio-terrorist attack!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Satcher, thank you very much.
DR. SATCHER: You're quite welcome. Delighted to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. David Satcher is the Surgeon General of the United States.