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  Officials Confirm 17th Anthrax Case

By David Espo
AP Special Correspondent
Friday, Nov. 2, 2001; 6:33 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON –– Officials confirmed the nation's 17th case of anthrax on Friday and the Bush administration, its bioterrorism probe stymied, issued a fresh appeal to the public to help identify the culprits behind the attack.

"When we get the facts, we'll share it with the American people," pledged President Bush.

Just shy of one month since the first diagnosis, authorities said they had detected anthrax in the work mailbox of a New Jersey woman who had been sickened with the skin form of the disease.

"It's a good sign," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, noting the discovery eased concerns she had been infected some other way, as yet undiscovered.

In an Associated Press interview, Thompson and other officials indicated they expect to find additional spiked letters and more anthrax diagnoses. "One would have to say there are probably going to be more cases," said Dr. D.A. Henderson, an authority on infectious diseases.

With investigators struggling, the Postal Service disclosed it had stopped retail sales of the type of pre-stamped envelope that carried anthrax-tainted mail to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the New York Post and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. Spokesman Azeezaly Jaffer said the action was related to the anthrax investigation, but declined to elaborate.

The newest case was reported in New York, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a New York Post employee's preliminary diagnosis of skin anthrax had been confirmed. The patient's identity was not disclosed.

The 17 cases nationwide included 10 victims of the inhalation type of the disease, including four deaths, and seven occurrences of the skin variety. So far all have been linked to the mail, with the exception of the death of Kathy L. Nguyen, a New York woman who worked at a small hospital in Manhattan.

New York City officials have confirmed three additional cases, including a diagnosis of skin anthrax Friday in Mark Cunningham. An editorial page employee at the New York Post, he is the third worker at the paper reported afflicted with the disease. Those three cases are not counted by the CDC, which uses stricter criteria.

Bush offered strong words of support for the work being done by public health officials, an effort that he said has saved lives. "I would say to the American people that we're learning a lot about anthrax, and we're doing everything we can to find out all the facts," he said.

Despite an intensive investigation, officials have yet to learn even whether the attack was launched by overseas or domestic terrorists.

"Nothing has been ruled out," said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller.

At a White House briefing, Mueller expressed disappointment at the paucity of tips that investigators have received since unveiling a $1 million award.

He said he was asking "in the strongest terms possible every American to join us in tracking down those responsible" for the attacks. He said he hoped the public would report any suspicious behavior to authorities, including among "individuals knowledgeable about anthrax."

More than that, he asked for the public to "study closely the images of the anthrax envelopes which we released last month ... and determine if you know who was the writer of those envelopes. And by those I mean comparing the handwriting on it to any handwriting you may be able to recognize."

Officials last month released copies of the three anthrax-tainted letters discovered thus far, as well as their envelopes.

Health officials expressed relief of sorts at the discovery of anthrax in a mailbin at the accounting firm where a New Jersey anthrax victim works. They said they believed the bacteria had not become airborne, adding there was little risk for the woman's co-workers to contract the inhalation form of the disease.

The discovery left one case for which investigators have not been able to establish a connection to the mail, Nguyen's death earlier in the week.

Mueller told reporters "we are trying to reconstruct her life to determine whether there are any leads that would help us determine how she contracted the anthrax." Thus far, officials have said that tests for the bacteria were negative at the woman's apartment and workplace. Tests of the clothing she wore into the hospital over the weekend also failed to yield evidence of contamination, they said.

Given the mysterious circumstances surrounding her illness, Nguyen's case raised concern of a wider outbreak. These fears have abated somewhat, according to one administration official, as the days go by without any evidence of additional cases.

Postal Service officials, already struggling with the contamination of eight facilities and testing in dozens more, disclosed a new, more manageable problem.

Payroll checks for some Washington-area postal employees were caught up in mail that was held at the city's contaminated central mail facility and sent to Ohio for sanitizing.

An exact number was not available, but officials said they had given advances to some workers.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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