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'You're Supposed To Go Get Tested'
An NPR Reporter's Brush with the Capitol Hill Anthrax Threat

listen Hear Julie Rovner's report on getting tested for anthrax exposure on Morning Edition, Oct. 17, 2001.

Since 1998, Julie Rovner has reported for NPR on health and legislative issues.

By Julie Rovner

The news came at about 10 o'clock Tuesday morning, Oct. 16, when another reporter tapped me on the shoulder. "You're supposed to go get tested," she said. I didn't have to ask for what, and she didn't have to say. We both knew I had been in the Hart Senate Office building Monday afternoon just outside the personal office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, hours after someone there opened a letter containing a "powdery substance" that turned out to harbor anthrax spores.

Julie Rovner

Julie Rovner
Photo: David Banks, NPR


I came to the Capitol Tuesday morning relatively unconcerned about my own personal safety. In the process of helping cover the anthrax story for NPR on Monday, I had gone to the Hart building about 2 p.m., well after the immediate area had been sealed off -- and after the ventilation system was shut down -- and stayed for about a half hour with about a dozen media colleagues. I have to say at this point that I am not a big risk-taker. But officials had assured us at the midday news conference Monday that the situation was under control, and no one suggested that it would be in any way dangerous to travel to the Hart building that afternoon.

There wasn't much to see. Through the interior windows of the Hart building, we saw someone in a biohazard suit going over items in a room of Daschle's office. I also saw a staffer locking the doors of the office to the adjacent suite of Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., where three staffers would later test positive for exposure to the spores.

It seemed highly unlikely I could have been personally affected. I watched the beginning of the news conference Tuesday morning, when the spokesman for the Capitol Police and the Capitol's attending physician recommend that people who were in Hart go and be tested for potential exposure. But I assumed they meant people who were in the building before the area was sealed, not three hours later. Tuesday morning, my colleague assured me that was not the case: "They told us after the press conference that they want everyone," she said.

"Through the interior windows of the Hart building, we saw someone in a biohazard suit going over items in a room of Daschle's office. I also saw a staffer locking the doors of the office to the adjacent suite of Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., where three staffers would later test positive for exposure to the spores."

Julie Rovner

It still seemed far-fetched. I had other work to do first, and about lunchtime I wandered over to Room 216 of the Hart building, where the testing was taking place. As I stood in line, I realized ruefully that just two weeks earlier, I sat in the same room to cover a bioterrorism hearing. That day, I heard testimony about just how ill-prepared the nation's public health system was to cope with a full-scale germ warfare attack.

I also realized with some discomfort that the line of people waiting to be tested snaked back down the hallway of Hart towards the affected area of the building. (Hart is an open building with an atrium and walkways, so air flows freely from the ground floor all the way to the top floor.)

Outside the hearing room, it seemed there were as many reporters and cameramen as people waiting to be tested. Just about everyone got interviewed, it seemed, and I did some interviewing myself. (My editor suggested I take a recorder with me, and I quickly realized that if I was going to get tested, I would have the opportunity to get access inside that others would not.) I ran into a lobbyist in line who is one of my regular sources. He was being tested because he had been visiting offices in the affected part of the building Monday, during the actual incident. I coached him as he did no fewer than four interviews during our 15-minute wait.

As we approached the head of the line, a nurse handed out the packages containing the nasal swabs. "Open it, but be careful not to remove the cover" on the swab, she said. "Write your name, Social Security Number, phone number, and where you think you might have been exposed," she added. Fitting all this information on the tube was no easy feat -- the containers were about the diameter of a magic marker.

When we reached the head of the line, we signed in with much the same information and were sent into the hearing room in batches of about 20.

The scene inside looked like your average health fair. There were four stations where doctors were conducting the actual tests, which took about 30 seconds. The doctor asked women if they could be pregnant, if they were on birth control pills, and if they were allergic to Cipro. (I couldn't hear what they asked the men.) The doctor warned me that the swab might make me gag, or sneeze, or itch. Then he poked it up each nostril (where it caused none of the above) -- and that was it. He replaced the cover, and directed me to a central table, where I swapped the swab for a small green envelope with six Cipro pills inside. "Take one twice a day, no alcohol, come back Thursday," said the doctor handing them out.

I actually debated whether or not to take the pills. I still thought my chances of having been exposed were miniscule. I finally decided to call and ask my own doctor, who has received dozens of calls from worried patients wanting him to write prescriptions for Cipro "just in case." And here was a patient with an actual potential exposure, and the pills in her hand, who didn't want to take them. "Take the pills," my doctor said. I did.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that anyone in the affected portion of the Hart building between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday -- which includes me -- take the full 60-day course of antibiotics.

I've discovered in the past few days that other people are far more interested in the results of my test than I am. In fact, as public health officials have tried unsuccessfully to make clear, test results are not a diagnostic tool, but an epidemiological one. That means that a positive result does not mean that a person will get sick, and a negative result does not mean that a person was not exposed.

"I've discovered in the past few days that other people are far more interested in the results of my test than I am. In fact, as public health officials have tried unsuccessfully to make clear, test results are not a diagnostic tool, but an epidemiological one."

Julie Rovner

The reason the tests are done is to isolate the outside perimeter of the area in which people were exposed. Everyone inside that area (which includes me, by the way) are all treated the same, regardless of the outcome of their individual "test." I am being treated not because I have been exposed, but because I might have been. As a result, although test results were available Friday, I didn't get mine.

I presume it was negative, partly because testers told me they would call people with positive results, but mostly because Friday's briefing said there have been no new positive tests from those at the Capitol since the original 31. (And Friday, officials said three of those people were "false positives," so the actual number is now 28). If anything changes, I will let people know.

People keep asking me if I'm scared. I guess I am, a little. But mostly what I'm feeling right now is a more profound sense of loss. That's because the Capitol is one of the places I've always felt completely safe. I all but grew up in the building -- at one point when I was in elementary school, both parents worked for members of Congress. I've worked in the complex, both as a staffer and a reporter, more or less continuously since 1983.

I've been in the Capitol during hurricanes, tornadoes, the Gulf War, and the Capitol shootings in 1998. My personal sense of safety had never been shaken -- until Sept. 11. That morning, I found myself in the park across from the Capitol with what seemed to be half the Senate, all of us milling about with no idea what to do or where to go, and the smoke from the burning Penatgon clearly visible over the horizon.

Since that day, nothing has been the same. There is a palpable sense of anxiety throughout the complex. People have been trying to do other work, but everyone always seems just slightly distracted. The added security that is normally a source of comfort now just seems more a reminder of the threat. And now, the anthrax scare.

Congress will certainly get through this. Congress always does. For the time being, I'll just take my pills.

Throughout the weekend of Oct. 20-21, Rovner got only busy signals when she dialed the Capitol‘s medical information hotline. On Oct. 22, she says, when she finally got through, “They told me my results were negative, but reminded me I was in the group supposed to get treated.”