Tuesday, October 16, 2001

America's Anthrax Anxiety

AAAHH!!! Anthrax!!!!! AAAAHH!!

There, do you have it out of your system yet? We really need to calm down. Get some perspective.

Tell the media to knock it off. They’ve made anthrax the new Chandra Levy. Do you realize how lucky we are that the envelope that went to Tom Daschle’s office didn’t go to Gary Condit instead? Larry King’s head might have exploded at the confluence.

Yes, the media (particularly the television news networks, with their nonstop info-tickers) deserve a lot of credit for feeding this frenzy. Tom Brokaw signed off the “NBC Nightly News” on Monday by saying, “In Cipro We Trust.” That’s the antibiotic that he and others have taken on the chance that they’ve been infected by anthrax.

What kind of pronouncement is that for a network news anchor? I’ll bet that many viewers took that as a suggestion that they go out and get some Cipro to be safe, too. Unfortunately, it’s an antibiotic, not a preventative, which means that it won’t keep you from getting anthrax poisoning -– and if you take it too much and for too long, you’ll actually reduce your body’s ability to fight off the anthrax bacteria. But never mind the facts, In Brokaw We Trust!

I’m not saying that there is absolutely no threat from anthrax. But I am saying that instead of Cipro, maybe America should talk to its doctor about a prescription for Paxil, the anxiety medicine. After all, statistically, you’re more likely to die in a roller coaster accident than from anthrax infection!

The US Post Office delivers 680,000,000 pieces of mail every day. So far, a grand total of one person has died from anthrax. The number of people infected is somewhere around a dozen, and all of them are doing fine with medical attention. In other words, we’re at about the same level we were with shark attacks this summer. Still, when the media overplayed that story, people all over the country became fearful. Because, as you know, those Mississippi River mud sharks are a real threat here in the midwest.

As of this morning, the FBI reports that there have been 2,300 reports of possible anthrax -- in the last week! Anywhere anyone spots white powder, hearts start pounding. It’s like living inside the body of Robert Downey Jr.

An airplane full of passengers was moved to a secure area at Cleveland’s airport for four hours because someone noticed some white powder coming off the end of a newly started roll of toilet paper. Hasn’t everyone seen that before? Same thing happened with a tissue box at a high school in the St. Louis area yesterday. In Kansas City, a middle school was evacuated after a cafeteria worker spotted some kind of white powder. Turned out it was baking soda, which you’d hope someone in the cafeteria might have seen before. What’s next, sales of CoffeeMate drop? Ever looked under your printer to see the white dust caused by hundreds of pieces of paper moving through the machinery? Please, don’t pass the salt, whatever you do.

The National Association of Broadcasters sent a memo to every radio and television station with instructions on how to handle mail. One of the things they said to be careful with is any package that has an odor or a stain. Gee, thanks for the tip, because those are always the first ones I open! I love getting stinky mail, don’t you? There goes my subscription to the Runny Cheese Of The Month Club.

Here’s another heads up: don’t inhale someone else’s dead relatives. In Georgia, a railroad worker spotted a container with a white powdery substance inside. Nope, not anthrax. It was human ashes from a cremation, placed in a box so they could be spread instead of buried.

We’re also told to be very cautious with our junk mail. Before this reminder, I would simply throw it away unopened. Now, I use special sanitized tongs to toss it into the trash.

Speaking of odors, did you hear the story of the guy in Pittsburgh who called the cops to report that he had smelled something odd coming out of the sewer? The dispatcher paused, asked him if he was serious, and the guy said, yeah, it really doesn’t smell good. To her everlasting credit, she told him that he should stop sniffing sewers, because they have always smelled bad, and there’s no reason to panic.

Panic. That’s the word, isn’t it? Remember all those announcements that we shouldn’t be afraid, or the terrorists have won? Keep it up and it’s game over.

People have been buying gas masks by the thousands (which, incidentally, means you’re not being patriotic, because the number one manufacturer of gas masks is a company in Chile!). Many stores have sold out of them faster than they did American flags, although you can probably pick one up from any of the people who still have them stockpiled in their bunkers from the Y2K hysteria. If you bought a gas mask, you’d have to carry it with you at all times, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, how would you know when to have it and when not to have it? Do you only put it on when opening your mail or passing a sewer?

I wonder if the people who have run out to buy masks have also bought them for their kids, and if the kids are supposed to hang on to them all day long at school. There are times my daughter can’t remember where her lunch bag is, and I’m supposed to assume that she’ll be able to get to her gas mask in time?

I can’t count the number of reporters who have told us that law enforcement officials remain on alert. That’s a relief. Wait a minute. Why would they ever not be on alert? Is there a “loaf around and don’t pay attention” status?

Hope this doesn’t mean the cops have cut down on their trips to the donut shop. I hear there’s a white powdery substance on some of those sugar crullers.