College Operations Proceed with Caution After Anthrax Scare

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Nicha Rakpanichmanee

While anthrax diagnoses headline national news, the Middlebury College community—particularly the student body—has responded with reserved concern. Daily routines appear undisturbed, except for some precaution at the mailroom and Recycling Center. Many people attribute their minimal apprehension to Middlebury’s remote location, in comparison to the recent targets of Washington, D.C., and the New York metropolitan area.

Of 190 Middlebury students polled on Tuesday, less than 10 percent were more than “somewhat concerned” about anthrax “directly affecting” them. On a scale of one to five—one being not concerned, three being somewhat concerned and five being very concerned—30 percent chose one, 32 percent chose two, 30 percent chose three, five percent chose four and three percent chose five.

Piper Platte ’02 was working in the mailroom last Monday when the “suspicious envelope” arrived. Even she expressed more frustration than concern about the anthrax scare, at least in retrospect.

“I feel safe at Middlebury, even after the letter,” she commented. “Initially I was pretty freaked out that something that’s part of my mundane daily routine could alter my future, or lack thereof. Afterwards, I was sorting the mail, paranoid, washing my hands more often. But later, I calmed myself. With the weird address and bizarre comments [on the envelope], I just thought ‘what sick person is playing this joke?’ It made me upset that someone would do this when other people are experiencing reverberations of the Sept. 11 events,” she continued.

The majority of the College community seems to agree that no real threat of anthrax is likely at Middlebury.

“I feel very safe up here; it’s almost eerie,” said Jimmy Hickey ’05. “The rest of the country has a cloud of fear and uncertainty over their heads, but I’m pretty oblivious to all of it. On the one hand, I feel bad that we’re not going through the same things as our families back at home. But on the other hand, what’s the point of feeling bad? If people here in Middlebury College, in the middle of nowhere, are even scared, the goal of the terrorism is being fulfilled.”

Despite the prevailing skepticism, some people at the College started to exercise a bit more caution. Missy Paquette, supervisor of the College’s Recycling Center, made sure her workers wore gloves during collection. Before the anthrax scare, gloves were used only for sorting recyclables. Paquette felt a bit less confident than others about Middlebury’s security.

“It’s kind of scary,” she explained. “We see labels from everywhere, including the post office. I don’t think we’re protected by any means. But what else could we really do? We just keep working and make sure that we wear gloves all the time. In theory, somebody is going to open it before they put it in recycling.”

Reflecting increased safeguards, 34 percent of the Middlebury students polled were exercising more caution when opening their mail. Sixty-six percent said they were not.

The poll also indicated that 49.2 percent of students agreed that the College has “done enough to inform [them] about the risks of anthrax and precautions they should be taking.” Approximately half of the student sample disagreed, 50.8 percent.

Although not too many students have noticed, the Parton Health Center has placed a direct link to information about anthrax on the Middlebury College homepage. The link provides basic facts about the bacteria and suggests precautionary measures and other details from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The CDC also broadcasted by satellite a detailed presentation about anthrax. Some nurses from the Health Center attended the viewing at Sunderland last Friday. Although the program was technical and targeted healthcare providers, it was retransmitted this Monday to be taped and made available to the Middlebury College community.

Kathleen Ready, administrative director of the Health Center, remarked that “only a handful” of students and families have expressed concern about anthrax. According to Ready, these concerns were expressed only in passing, during visits for other purposes.

Ready added that there is “absolutely” no cause for alarm. “They seem to be targeting very visible organizations and political entities,” she said. ” It’s hard for me to think that we’d be at risk. But there are things that, although unlikely, are good to be informed about. I suggest people read these things and go about their business.”

Going about their business seems to be exactly what people are doing, in rural Middlebury as well as beyond.

“Anthrax is somewhat unnerving and scary, but I can go on with my daily life,” commented Jenna Karlin ’02, who also works at the Recycling Center. She mentioned a recent visit to New York City. The atmosphere was “definitely very different down there,” but her friends—though with “a slight fear”—are also going on with their lives.

“One of my friends started coughing a lot,” Karlin recounted. “And then she said, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got anthrax.'”

Platte, while working in the Middlebury mailroom, said she had heard “a lot of joking” about anthrax, partaking in some of it herself. “Someone will say, ‘Oh, there’s another box with anthrax,'” said Platte. “It seems to be our way of dealing with the personal insecurity that a little envelope can kill us.”

Mail Center Supervisor David La Rose confirmed the need to laugh through the distress. “We keep on joking even in serious times,” he said. “It helps us get through the day. But everybody is aware, of course, of how serious the situation could be.”

“I have mixed feelings,” Platte continued. “A part of me knows that to deal with suffering, we need to remember to laugh. But then I can’t always laugh at what’s causing us to suffer because that’s denial.”

“I’ve always felt that the Middlebury campus is apathetic about dealing with current issues,” Platte commented. “I think we need more of a movement to get the whole campus riled up about it. And not just have people joke about it because we’re afraid or don’t know what’s going on.”