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Tularemia tests in D.C. inconclusive

US agency rapped for delaying alert

WASHINGTON -- Some federal and local officials in the District of Columbia were not notified for five days that sensors on the Mall had detected potentially dangerous bacteria last month, because tests were not conclusively positive, a US official said yesterday. .

The Department of Homeland Security delayed in alerting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the same reason, said Richard Besser, who directs the CDC's coordinating office for terrorism preparedness and emergency response.

More than a half-dozen sensors showed the presence of tularemia bacteria the morning after thousands of people gathered on the Mall for a book festival and antiwar rally. The CDC was not contacted for at least 72 hours.

Testing did not identify all the definitive markers that scientists had been seeking, and officials were wary of issuing a false alarm, Besser said.

He called the matter ''highly unusual," but he acknowledged that it would prompt the two agencies to review their protocol and the timeliness of their response ''to make sure the system doesn't have any flaws in it."

''It really will cause us to look at the system and say, 'Should things have been different?' " Besser said in a telephone interview.

Representative Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia, suggested that the answer is yes.

In letters he sent Monday to the secretary of the Homeland Security Department, Michael Chertoff, and the CDC director, Julie Gerberding, he called the notification time frame ''alarming."

Davis also asked for an accounting of any procedures that might have been triggered when the government's ''BioWatch network" senses a biological agent.

Davis's questions focused on what each agency knew and when it knew it, as well as which local and state officials were called and when. ''Why weren't these officials notified immediately following the detection?" Davis wrote.

The director of the District of Columbia's Health Department, Gregg Pane, who learned of the situation in a conference call Friday, said he would have liked to have been involved sooner. Hours after being alerted by the CDC, he and his counterparts across the region put out a public announcement.

''I wish they'd bring us in earlier," he said yesterday.

As of yesterday, , local and federal health officials said they had confirmed no cases of tularemia from the Mall gathering and had not found any spikes in possible symptoms. Although the germ that causes tularemia is highly infectious, the disease itself is not passed from person to person and can be easily treated with antibiotics. Left untreated, it can be fatal.

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