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Amid Smallpox Outbreaks, Bush Calls for Calm, Shopping
December 7, 2002
By David Albrecht

WASHINGTON, DC - "The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta confirmed early this afternoon that smallpox outbreaks are underway in eight American cities. The cities are: New York, Baltimore, Raleigh NC, Jacksonville FL, San Antonio, New Orleans, St. Louis and Seattle. CDC confirmation of additional outbreaks in Los Angeles, San Diego, Salt Lake City and Santa Fe, NM is expected by late tonight.

CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding stated that a bio-terror attack is a foregone conclusion as the cause of the epidemic: "There is no other possible explanation for the multiple simultaneous outbreaks we are seeing now. We are proceeding on the assumption that this is part of a terrorist attack plan." Smallpox was eliminated as a natural disease in the late 1970s, although the US and Russia retained viral stockpiles for research and defensive purposes.

Neither CDC nor the Public Health Service has given definitive figures on the number of victims so far, though PHS estimates initial caseloads "in the low thousands", according to an anonymous source. A doctor at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, also speaking off the record, gave figures of 44 dead and 237 confirmed infected (including fatalities) since victims began turning up in emergency rooms three days ago. St. Louis appears to be one of the areas hardest-hit by the attack, although official confirmation of the death toll is still pending, both in St. Louis and around the country. Further figures or estimates from other cities were lacking at press time.

President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office at 4:00 PM EST. Referring to the smallpox epidemic as "a cowardly attack on America by those who hate our freedoms," the president spent relatively little time discussing countermeasures and quarantines. Instead, in a bid to shore up consumer confidence and slumping financial markets, he urged uninfected Americans to shop, spend and invest. In his words, "A new car, a Florida vacation or a mink coat gives terrorists a clear message - you have not won!"

The president's schedule did not allow time for a formal press conference, but reporters were able to shout a few questions during the photo op before the speech. One asked for comment on the videotape recently released by the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera showing Osama bin Laden inoculating a suicide volunteer with the smallpox virus. Bush stated that "The fight against terror isn't about just one man. It's about rooting out those who fund and support terrorism." The president noted that the Al-Jazeera studios and transmitters had already been precision-bombed by U.S. Central Command forces stationed in the Persian Gulf region, and that he "didn't expect to hear from Osama again" anytime soon.

Corporate America responded quickly to the president's call for confidence. Detroit's Big Three promptly rolled out a new patriotic sale promotion, jointly announcing "Red Dot Specials", which will give new car buyers one year before they make their first payment, in combination with 0% financing for qualified buyers. Tiffany's and Bloomingdale's in New York announced deep discounts on Kate Spade and Versace designer face masks, and Target announced an "Epidemic of Savings Sale" in an attempt to cut heavy inventories. Economists attributed consumers' lackluster initial response to cool weather, a natural slowdown following a busy prior month in retail, and the presence of large numbers of heavily armed police and National Guard troops blocking access to some major metro areas and selected interstate highways.

On Wall Street, the Dow finished down 868.34, the S & P 500 was down 154.76 and the tech-heavy NASDAQ was off 367.84. Street-watchers noted that much of the relatively downbeat session was due to profit taking, sub-par earnings in the tech sector and a triple-witching hour in the commodities and futures markets. Lou Dobbs of CNN's popular "Moneyline" mentioned that "sheer rending-your-own-face-with-your-fingernails panic" might have played a secondary role.

President Bush said relatively little in his speech about exactly what measures would be taken in cities and regions attempting to deal with smallpox. He said that he and Tom Ridge, working through the new Department of Homeland Security, would allow "full latitude" to local and state governments. "We don't pretend to have all the answers. We've never believed that all wisdom resides in Washington. In many cases, mayors and governors know better than we do as to what needs to be done." Bush did announce that INS had instituted a "temporary" shutdown of all incoming international flights and that Coast Guard crews in full biohazard gear would board and search all inbound ships. Further details, he stated, would be up on the White House website sometime next week.

The president did promise substantial emergency federal aid to state and local governments to help in dealing with the crisis. However, there may be some difficulty in steering extra funding through the House. Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has already denounced the idea of "free rides" for "states and cities that can't control their panicky residents." DeLay has also announced that he will not allow block grants to non-federal health departments without careful systematic review. Capitol Hill insiders believe that DeLay's intransigence stems from concerns among pro-life Republican politicians. Many, including Georgia GOP Chair Ralph Reed, are concerned that money transferred to states would allow intra-budget transfers within states that might allow state tax dollars to be diverted to health clinics that might discuss abortion with smallpox victims who might be pregnant. Neither Bush nor DeLay were available for comment on the emergency spending question.

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