U.S. military officials said last night that they were confident that there is no public health threat at mailrooms at the Pentagon and a Fairfax County office complex because a series of tests performed yesterday all came back negative for deadly anthrax bacteria.
Based on a positive overnight test on material from the Pentagon, public health and postal officials acted throughout the day on the assumption that the capital region faced an anthrax threat for the first time since 2001. Defense Department officials recommended that nearly 700 people begin antibiotic treatment, and the U.S. Postal Service began medicating 200 workers at its main government mail center at V Street NE in the District, which was shuttered for testing. Virginia moved antibiotics for 3,000 people to Fairfax.
John Tucker, who works at a facility that handles government mail, fills out paperwork to receive a screening for anthrax at the D.C. General Hospital campus.
(Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
Spokesman on Anthrax Scare: Postal spokesman Gerry McKiernan discusses the latest developments in the anthrax investigation.
Events Leading to Anthrax Alert
_____More on Preparedness_____
Anthrax Alarm Uncovers Response Flaws (The Washington Post, Mar 17, 2005)
Anthrax Response Brings Calls For Summit (The Washington Post, Mar 17, 2005)
New Tests For Anthrax Negative (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
Officials Say Fairfax Was Out of Loop (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
Anthrax Facts (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
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Mail service to the federal government in Washington was shut down. Deliveries of mail, food and office supplies to the Pentagon were halted. U.S. health officials issued a nationwide alert urging doctors to look out for cases of anthrax exposure.
But analysis of more than 70 samples subsequently taken from filters, surfaces and machines at both mailrooms showed no trace of anthrax bacteria, living or dead.
A senior military official said investigators are concentrating on the possibility that the sample from the Pentagon actually was contaminated at a contractor's laboratory in Richmond. The material, a swab taken from a filter on a biohazard detector, was then passed on to Army scientists at Fort Detrick on Monday. They confirmed the positive finding early yesterday
"The probability is low to very low that we're dealing with a true health threat," said William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
Still, federal and local health officials recommended that those already advised to take antibiotics keep taking them, pending final test results.
The day's events renewed anxieties across the Washington region and resurrected memories of the government's halting and problem-plagued response in September and October 2001, when at least four letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to the news media and two senators, sickening 17 people and killing five, including two postal employees at the Brentwood facility in the District. No suspect has been identified.
The nation's first bioterrorism attack led to wholesale changes in the handling of government mail near Washington and new emergency protocols for the Postal Service and public health officials. Many of those protocols worked this week, authorities said. But Fairfax and Virginia officials were angry that the Pentagon had not alerted them to a potential threat. And postal workers remained wary of the official response.
Government officials expressed alarm that familiar problems of coordination and information-sharing, originating chiefly at the Pentagon, added to the confusion and delayed the ability of postal officials, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Virginia and District health officials to respond by as much as a day or more.
"There is a concern that [the Department of Homeland Security,] which has a key role in these types of incidents under the incident management system, was not alerted," a Bush administration official said on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the criticism. "Once alerted, DHS, in coordination with the FBI, [Health and Human Services Department] and CDC began initiating a response coordinated with state and local agencies."
U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who represents the areas around both facilities, and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, asked the Pentagon to explain its response. "We need to hear what the explanation is," Moran said.
Bryan Whitman, a top Pentagon spokesman, said the department followed its playbook and notified local officials in Arlington.
"The department acted very aggressively," Whitman said. He said the event would allow Pentagon officials "to evaluate our procedures and decide whether or not we can improve them from an incident management standpoint."