Report: Suspicious package that prompted mini-emergency was letter from government agency
If you subscribe to HCPro’s monthly Briefings on Hospital Safety  newsletter, you will recall the story of a hazardous material scare and emergency lockdown at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland. Two men opened a piece of mail at home in May, discovered a suspicious substance inside, and began experiencing skin and respiratory irritation, so they went to the local ED—and brought the unknown substance with them. That, of course, sent hospital staff scurrying to contain the threat.
Because the men live across the street from the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick, a hub for biodefense research, there was added concern that the substance might be a biological agent. That turned out not to be the case. Investigators quickly identified the substance as a relatively common household chemical. But the circumstances leading up to that hazmat scare and lockdown, as reported in the local newspaper, are still baffling.
The substance that caused the hubbub was ultimately determined to be an ingredient found in rat poisoning, The Frederick News-Post ’s Jeremy Arias reported last week. That substance was delivered in an envelope from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to the home address of Jay Zimmerman, who said he had held a position with NIST for 33 years. The envelope also reportedly contained a letter from NIST informing Zimmerman that he would be removed from his position.
Zimmerman, who retired from NIST in June, told the News-Post that he believes his former employer used the substance to target him as an act of retaliation because Zimmerman had filed a complaint against NIST earlier this year alleging discrimination and harassment on account of his sexual orientation and disability. A spokesperson for NIST declined to comment on the allegations, citing the Privacy Act.
Investigators reviewed surveillance footage at NIST that shows the suspicious package being sealed, Frederick police Sgt. Andrew Alcorn told the News-Post.
“There is nothing on the video that appears to be suspicious or that indicates any of that substance was put into the package at that point,” Alcorn said.
Although the case was officially suspended without any charges being filed, the resulting response gave Frederick Memorial an opportunity to test its own emergency preparedness.
“When events like this take place,” said Phil Giuliano, the hospital’s director of public safety and security, “I think it’s a reminder for hospital staff, hospital leaders, and community members as a whole how important it is to have strong relationships, to maintain strong relationships with those other partners you have in your county, in your jurisdiction, in your area of operations.”