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Partners:
  10,000 Mail Workers on Anthrax Drug

By Laura Meckler
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001; 9:55 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON –– The death of two postal workers of "almost certain" anthrax led health officials to begin testing mail workers from 36 post offices in the nation's capital Tuesday and put thousands on antibiotics as a precaution.

Among those being tested: Washington Mayor Anthony Williams. He visited a post office Friday to show support for workers and could have been exposed.

Nine people with suspicious symptoms were being monitored. Dr. Ivan Walks, the city's chief health official, said not all nine are mail workers.

He also raised the possibility that the contaminated letter received in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was not the only one that passed through the postal system here. "It's clear more than one letter was sent," Walks said on NBC's "Today."

Two postal workers with inhaled anthrax remain hospitalized – resting comfortably, but in serious condition. Walks said tests on the two dead workers will likely find anthrax.

"The cause of death, the manner of death of these two individuals, make us almost certain it's classic for inhalation anthrax, and we are proceeding as if it such because we need to do that to protect the public health," he said.

Congress was open for business Tuesday, although the office buildings for Senate and House workers remained closed for anthrax testing. Four "hot spots" have been identified around the congressional campus, and possibly the Capitol itself, congressional sources said.

The Postal Service defended a delay in looking for anthrax at the city's central processing facility, where the victims worked, and considered new precautions for workers nationwide.

Deborah Willhite, senior vice president of the U.S. Postal Service, said the agency relied on federal officials who advised against testing of all workers. But by Thursday, three days after the letter was discovered in Daschle's office, postal officials questioned that decision and began their own testing.

Testing for anthrax continued at Washington's Brentwood postal facility, a week after the tainted letter appeared on Capitol Hill. Health officials said they would expand testing to 36 post offices across the city that received mail from Brentwood, as investigators tried to pinpoint any other sites contaminated with anthrax.

Authorities said postal workers citywide should begin taking preventive antibiotics. The number prescribed such precautions neared 10,000 in Washington alone.

As the bioterrorist toll mounted, postal officials planned to meet Tuesday with experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to consider new precautions for postal workers across the country, including wearing gloves and masks as they handle mail.

"Like other symbols of American freedom and power, the mail and our employees have become a target of terrorists," Postmaster General John Potter said. "We must take extraordinary steps to protect them both."

Two Washington area postal workers have died – one Sunday, one Monday – and officials strongly suspect they were sick with inhalation anthrax, the most serious form of the disease. Another two men, already diagnosed, are in serious condition in a northern Virginia hospital.

An employee of a Florida newspaper died of inhalation anthrax and a worker at the same plant is hospitalized. Six persons have been diagnosed with the skin form of anthrax: two at a Trenton, N.J., postal facility and one each connected with The New York Post, NBC, ABC and CBS in New York.

Twenty-eight people were confirmed to have been exposed to anthrax following the delivery of the tainted letter to Daschle's office. No one on Capitol Hill has become ill, though more than 5,000 have been tested and office buildings remain closed.

Officials began tracing the letter back through the mail system and found anthrax in a Senate mail room. Moving one step back, they initially found none of the bacteria in an offsite congressional mail facility where mail goes just before arriving in the Senate.

Based on these initial results, health experts concluded testing was not needed at the Brentwood facility, which handles most of the city's mail, including letters for Congress. Later, however, anthrax was detected in the offsite facility, and over the weekend the first of the Brentwood workers checked into the hospital.

"They closed the House building down while we were in there inhaling it," said Abraham Odom of Oxon Hill, Md., who sorts small packages at the Brentwood facility. "That's not right. That's not fair. This stuff is supposed to be deadly."

It was still unclear how enough anthrax escaped into the air of the Brentwood facility so that workers breathed it deep into their lungs, contracting the usually deadly inhalation form of the disease.

One possible explanation: Blowers used to clean postal machinery could have puffed lethal anthrax spores through the air. The Postal Service was revising its use of these machines, and moving to a vacuum system instead of a blower. Potter also said bacteria-killing machines like those used to sanitize food were being purchased.

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt described the anthrax as a highly sophisticated product – small and aerosolized – that was dispersed by a mail-processing machine. "No one foresaw a machine that puts pressure on the envelopes. The machine, I think, was the critical factor," he said after meeting with President Bush and other congressional leaders Tuesday morning. "No one understood the effect of the machine."

In New Jersey, the FBI sought the source of least three anthrax-tainted letters that went through a mail facility in the Trenton area.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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