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Time for a Plan B?

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October 6, 2008

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt made headlines — and got kudos — for his department’s proposal Wednesday to use postal workers to distribute protective antibiotics to individual households in the event of an anthrax attack.

A dry run in Philadelphia convinced officials that the concept could work. In that test, 50 mail carriers reached 55,000 households in less than eight hours, a level of penetration deemed successful.

But the next day, the U.S. Postal Service revealed what could be the fly in the ointment of that plan: the Postal Service is so financially strapped that, for the first time in its history, it may have to lay off workers.

Seems mail volume dropped 11 percent in fiscal 2008, leading to a $2.3 billion deficit in the Postal Service budget. Even an expected rate increase next year won’t be enough to boost revenue enough, meaning a larger shortfall lies ahead.

And, given the growing use of e-mail and non-government package haulers, some analysts believe the time is not far off that we’ll have mail delivered at home just once or twice a week by a postal service less than half the size it is today.

With those ranks so thinned, HHS might need a Plan B.


 

The Air Force lent a big behind-the-scenes hand to the makers of "Eagle Eye," a new action-thriller starring Shia LaBeouf. The services see movies as potentially priceless PR opportunities, providing the film portrays the military in a positive light.

Apparently, "Eagle Eye" passed muster, because the Air Force lent the DreamWorks production film a C-17 Globemaster transport plane, an F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter and an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned bomber, a cutting-edge drone that has been used for both reconnaissance and missile-lobbing in Iraq. Real-live airmen also served as extras on scenes shot in Washington and Los Angeles.


 

A big sister of the Reaper also had a starring role, this one during the rampage of Hurricane Ike. For the first time, the Navy sent the huge Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft on storm duty, where it stayed aloft at 65,000 feet for more than 25 hours, sending back more than 500 high-resolution pictures of the hurricane itself and the damage left in its wake. The drone, which has served as the eye in the sky over battle areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, also was used to hunt for survivors.

In the future, forecasters hope the Global Hawk will be used to track the beginnings of tropical storms and follow them as they develop, providing meteorologists with data of exceptional quality.


 

The federal Food Stamp Program is no more. As of Wednesday, its official name became the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture affectionately calls it, "SNAP."

The USDA said the new, jazzed-up name represents the "advent of a new era" and "more accurately reflects the program’s mission." Others say it represents the eternal impulse of government to employ more letters to say the same thing.


 

After shrinking to the second-smallest ice field ever seen since satellites started surveying it, the Arctic is refreezing, scientists engaged in an expedition mapping the sea floor reported this week. But the summer produced a milestone that may be a harbinger of navigation to come. For several weeks, it was possible to cross the Arctic via ice-free lanes along both the coasts of Eurasia (the Northern Sea Route) and Canada’s Northwest Passage — the first time they had been open at the same time, officials say.


 

There were some tense days this past week at the National Zoo when Tai Shan, the only panda born at the zoo to survive, went off his feed. Most uncharacteristically, the beefy 3-year-old turned up his nose at the "leaf-eater biscuits" he and other pandas usually delight in. Zoo doctors anesthetized him and found inflammation in his esophagus that they diagnosed as a case of heartburn caused by acid reflux. Tai, we feel your pain.

 

(SHNS correspondent Lee Bowman contributed to this column. E-mail Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at)shns.com.)