A total of 2 million households in five cities will have a surprise visit from their letter carrier this summer, and the carriers won't be delivering mail. Escorted by a police officer, they will deposit up to two bottles of emergency doxycyclene in each mailbox -- first responders to a fictional anthrax or other bioterrorist attack.
The bottles won't contain real drugs. But everything else about the delivery will look real, a scenario meant to prepare local officials for a biological terror attack with a quick strike delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.
The mail carriers, all volunteers, are the lynchpin of a pilot program launched with a dry run May 6 in Minneapolis/St. Paul and will continue until the end of September in Louisville, San Diego, Boston and Philadelphia.
With a $10 million budget approved by Congress, the postal service is teaming up with the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, state and local health officials and law enforcement agencies to devise a program that would deliver doses of antibiotics to thousands of households in each city within hours of an attack.
The tests follow an executive order President Barack Obama issued three years ago to create a model where postal workers would deliver medication during a widespread biological emergency. The idea is to keep people from panicking as they head to medicine distribution centers and to reduce lines.
Under terms of the National Letter Carriers Association's contract with the postal service, mail carriers can't be forced to be first responders but can volunteer, officials said. Hundreds raised their hands and were trained.
Officials said mail carriers can be deployed within hours of an anthrax attack, after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention orders local health officials to release medicine.
An anthrax attack in 2001, soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, killed five people and left 17 others ill. The mail service was crippled after anthrax-laden letters were sent to congressional offices, media outlets and others. More than 10,000 people took antibiotics to prevent infection.
In 2008, federal prosecutors identified scientist Bruce Ivins, who worked at the government's biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., as the suspect. Ivins had killed himself days before.
A year later, a federal panel concluded that the FBI had overstated genetic evidence tying the anthrax to Ivins' supply.