Buffalo's disaster-coordination officials said Thursday they had received 50 calls about possible anthrax contamination since Saturday.
No anthrax was found as a result fo any of the calls, but legitimate concerns about chemical and biological terrorism have reached Western New York and are being dealt with hour by hour, 175 physicians and other health professionals were told Thursday evening.
"It's not if, and it's not when -- it's now," John W. Sniderhan, the city's disaster-planning coordinator, told medical professionals in Erie County Medical Center. An additional 35 or more medical people participated via teleconference from Olean.
Officials, meanwhile, said Buffalo, with Rochester and New York City, is one of the state's three medical-response cities, under contract with the federal government to take responsibility for 10,000 or more patients or casualties in the event of a national disaster.
Sniderhan and other speakers outlined an emerging network being formed by nearly four dozen agencies to develop a medical-response system that can deal effectively with public fears of anthrax terrorism.
"On that day, there was talk of transferring patients or casualties to Buffalo by military aircraft or by ground," said Dr. William Dice, who, under the Metropolitan Medical Response System, heads the committee on identifying and treating dangerous chemical-biological agents.
Pointing to an image of the damaged Pentagon on a video screen, the retired Army colonel said, "My office was right there, to the left, in the basement, when I worked there."
Dice addressed the practical questions the community now faces.
"What do we do about anthrax?" he asked. "We are on the front lines here, dealing with the patient who comes in with the flu and thinks he has anthrax."
The first challenge is to reassure the public, he said.
"Generally, we can take care of (an anthrax infection)," he said. "We just have to calm people down."
In September 2000, Buffalo signed a contract with the federal government to take responsibility for 10,000 or more patients or casualties in the event of a national disaster.
"It no longer seems out of sight to think of treating 10,000 patients," Sniderhan said. "Can we do it? We have to build on our resources."
Under the federal contract, he said, Buffalo is eligible for $400,000 in federal funds and an "optional" $200,000 more for disasters, including an anthrax attack.
"How long would we have to wait for federal relief?" Sniderhan asked. "They said five hours. Add 20 to it, when dealing with the federal government. We're on our own for the first 24 hours."
The local network is growing, he said, and 35 to 45 agencies were represented at a steering committee meeting Thursday. The issues it discussed included how to handle 10 truckloads of medical supplies that, in an emergency, suddenly might arrive on a Boeing 747 jet.
Sheila K. Kee, chief executive officer of ECMC, said the community is blessed with some of the best medical professionals in the nation for dealing with anthrax and similar threats. She said ECMC was already a central coordination center, containing the region's key laboratory facilities for identifying dangerous substances.