MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Although no anthrax cases have been detected in humans within a thousand miles, hundreds of people have called the state Health Department hot line set up to field calls about the illness.
"You wonder how much powder there may have been before, but people just didn't pay any attention to it," said Sara Stenzel, an epidemiologist who normally works on foodborne illnesses, but was helping staff the phone lines Friday.
Thus far, public health officials are not offering tests unless they're convinced there's a credible threat of exposure to anthrax and they're not doing nasal swabs unless anthrax is detected.
Officials said their labs would be overwhelmed if they offered tests to soothe people's nerves.
The job of the small army of nurses and scientists who answer the hot line phones is to sort out what they consider legitimate threats, and politely advise others how to deal with their concerns.
"Don't open it. Just toss it," Maria Rubin, a nurse, tells a caller who is worried about an unopened package from overseas. "Put it in the garbage."
Rubin and the other staffers, who rotate on the hot line for 90-minute shifts, are taking time away from tracking HIV or foodborne illnesses or other ordinary diseases to juggle six phone lines and fill out "anthrax/bioterrorism call logs."
They've set up shop in a conference room at the department's Minneapolis offices, surrounded by chalkboards and other displays filled with tidbits about anthrax cases on the east coast.
Some callers phone because they've spotted powder on an envelope, or received a mysterious package, or because they heard it happened to someone nearby. Others are police or firefighters responding to 911 calls and doctors or clinic workers calling for a worried patient.
And then "there are some people who are just scared," said Karen White, an epidemiologist. "They don't have a good reason to be scared. They're just overwhelmed by the media reports, and they need to be reassured."
The hot line workers say they generally recommend testing only packages or letters that are highly suspicious. For example, one contained powder and a threatening letter; others have other suspicious markings or unusual origins.
If it's simply worrisome -- but with no sign of anything harmful -- "I would just throw it out and wash my hands," said White.
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