9/11, Anthrax, and Life in Public Health: Part 3

By Scott J. Becker, MS, Executive Director, APHL

Part 3 of a three part series.  

Angels to the Rescue

During this period, APHL experienced a surge in media interest, as it quickly became apparent which labs were doing the anthrax testing.  We went from maybe three media calls per year to up to 60 per day.  I made the decision that APHL should not shy away from media attention, instead we should let the media tell our story.  But I knew that we couldn’t keep up this pace so I asked the board to approve a one time deficit spending of up to $30,000 for crisis communications support.  How did I arrive at that figure?  It seemed like a number that would fly – and it least it was a place to start.  Following board approval, I contacted the only director of communications I knew, Jody DeVoll (then with AMCHP) for advice.  She stayed on the phone with me for over an hour, coaching me on the nuances of media and ended by saying “you need Jill Merrick, and you need an intern just to handle the incoming calls.”  Jody is Angel #1.  Jill Merrick is a communicator extraordinaire.  She was my godsend back then, and now I consider her a good friend.  Jill called me to say, “Jody called me and told me your situation, how can I help?”  Jill was in our office the next day, and our own media induced chaos became more manageable, and most importantly it became more strategic.  Jill is Angel #2.    I gave one interview on WCBS News radio in New York City about the use of anthrax home test kits that were being sold on the internet (I said that it was a bad idea).  Nancy Kaufman, an executive at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation heard the interview and called to ask if there was something they could do.  “For sure, “I replied, “we need funds to help pay for crisis communications support.”  Nancy is my third angel.  Within days, I had a grant to cover our communications needs, but with one caveat.  We were told that we must produce a communications plan for the association but the added commentary was “we don’t think that you can really do much with it, after all it’s only labs you deal with.”  To me, those were fighting words.    Not only did we create that plan, but we proved them wrong, very wrong.  About a year after the anthrax attacks and subsequent media maelstrom, APHL hired its first director of strategic communications – Jody DeVoll, also known as Angel #1.  Jody now heads up a four person strategic communications team.  The public health lab system rose to the occasion that fall, testing over 125,000 samples for anthrax contamination.

The fall and winter of 2001 ended for me with a much needed two week vacation.  On December 26, 2001 USA Today ran a multi-page story about labs and anthrax, complete with a quarter page photo of Kati Kelley, the Connecticut state laboratory director (and one of my public health heroes).

Shortly after the new year, my daughter Sophie began to utter her first few words.  They were “dada,” “mama,” and “antrax.”  It was at that moment that I realized what toll these events took on me, having been absent so much of Sophie’s first year.  Someday Sophie and her younger sister Ali may read these words and realize how important it is for me to serve the public’s health through APHL, and how my small role and bearing witness helped shape me as a parent and as a professional.

Through planning, long days and nights, excellent science (some admittedly “on the fly”), and the dedication of some of the most committed public servants in America, we made it through that dark fall and winter stronger because of the experience.  The experiences of 2001 helped us better serve the public through other health threats in the past ten years – West Nile Virus, SARS, monkeypox, Hurricane Katrina, 2009 H1N1 Influenza pandemic, and the Deepwater Horizon (Gulf Coast Oil Spill) accident.

The unsung heroes of public health, laboratorians, hold my greatest respect.

Part 1 and Part 2

 

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Richard Besser at 3:44 pm

    Scott:

    Your blog captures those days so vividly. The nation’s public health labs are so often unsung heroes. You show so well what they do and why it matters. Thanks so much.

    • APHL Author at 11:01 am

      Thanks so much, Rich. As you said, the labs are often the unsung heroes of public health. Even without receiving the credit and recognition they deserve, public health labs are working hard to protect everyone in this country. We are very proud of their work!

  2. Pingback: Association of Public Health Laboratories - APHL Public Health LabLog
  3. Tom Milne at 6:30 pm

    Scott,
    Thank you for taking the time to share this with us all. It flashed me back instantly to the pressure and stress-filled days immediately after 9/11 and through conclusion of the Anthrax incidents. I was with NACCHO then, and would add only that there were many, many unsung heroes among the nation’s local health departments as well as with state health departments during those days. However, no single organization spent more time in the cross-hairs of media attention or at the apex of response activities than APHL and your member state laboratories. Scott, your leadership and clear vision were both stellar and critical assets to the national response to the anthrax incidents. You are one of my heroes.

    Tom Milne

    • Scott Becker at 8:08 pm

      Tom, I’m really humbled by your words. Those were some dark days that we went through together, and I’m glad we came through it better, stronger and safer. More tired too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *