Americans across the country insist they are taking the anthrax scare in stride, voicing concern but remaining confident that they won't become victims too. Mental health specialists, however, predict greater anxiety lies ahead.
"We haven't seen any great increase in worrying about being a victim of terrorist attacks generally in our polls," said Andrew Kohut, a public opinion specialist who directs the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "There's not panic in the streets, and there has not been a general upsurge in concern in the country."
ABC-TV polls earlier this month showed a decline in the number of people who considered themselves worried "a great deal" or "somewhat" about being bioterrorism victims. The worriers slipped from 55% on Oct. 15 to 47% on Wednesday.
A Newsweek poll released over the weekend found that 43% of respondents said the government had given the public reliable information about the anthrax threat. Of the rest, 23% said the government had not told people enough to stave off panic; and 30% thought officials didn't have the necessary information themselves.
The appearance of reasoned calm is born out by the comments of people in many parts of the country. But the comments are laced with apprehension.
In Elburn, Ill., a farm village in the heart of the homeland, "people are talking about anthrax. They are concerned, because they're not sure what will happen next," said Judith Miller, who writes the Love of Community column for the local paper.
"But I guess we feel pretty safe out here in the cornfields."
Sarah Conley, a firefighter and emergency medical technician, said the Fire Department has had several calls about possible anthrax, including one that closed the high school for a day.
"When that happens, people get kind of crazy," she said. For the most part, though, "people feel like we're a little community. There's no reason for the terrorists to come out here."
At a post office in Houston, a U.S. flag flapped at half staff Friday and a postal clerk wore latex gloves to set out fresh mailing supplies. But customers seemed unconcerned.
"So few people have been infected or exposed that you really have to look at the odds," Jennifer Dial said.
In suburban Atlanta, Susan Domingo, who works at a medical facility, said she now wears gloves and a mask to open her office mail. "I probably will get gloves for home," she said. "And I've decided that anything that looks like junk mail will go into the trash."
Some mental health specialists, predict that the slow, uncertain pace of the investigation will heighten public apprehension significantly in the next several weeks, especially if anthrax is found in other parts of the country.
Signs of pressure--anxiety, mild depression, sleeplessness, free-floating emotions, feeling on edge--are increasing, said Jay Segal, a specialist in emotional trauma at Temple University's Center for Public Health in Pennsylvania.
"This threat is one where it's very difficult to predict exactly when it's going to materialize and where," said Richard Zinbarg, director of the Anxiety Treatment Program at Northwestern University's Family Institute in Chicago.
Psychological studies have repeatedly shown that when people are faced with two equally serious threats, "if one is predictable and the other is not predictable, the unpredictable one will arouse significantly more anxiety," Zinbarg said.
"So you would predict that this situation would lead to fairly widespread anxiety."
Indeed, Zinbarg said, the anthrax letters in Florida, Washington and New York don't seem designed to kill large numbers of people. "It's more aimed at planting the seeds of fear for any of us that, next time you go to the mailbox, it could be waiting for you."
Times researchers Lianne Hart in Houston, Lynn Marshall in Seattle and Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this report.