WASHINGTON (AP) Anthrax probably killed two postal workers from a facility that delivers mail to the nation”s capital and left two more hospitalized, officials said yesterday as the country suffered fresh casualties in the bioterrorism war.
“The mail and our employees have become the target of terrorists,” said Postmaster General John Potter.
Health officials also expressed concern about as many as nine other Washington-area patients who have exhibited symptoms consistent with the disease. The officials did not say whether any worked for the postal service.
With bioterrorism claiming additional lives, Washington, D.C., health officials issued an urgent call for 2,000 workers at the city”s central Brentwood mail facility to undergo screening for the disease, and stoutly defended the decision not to order tests last week.
“I think they moved quickly, as quickly as they could,” said Tom Ridge, the nation”s homeland security director. But some postal employees expressed anger that officials didn”t order testing when an anthrax-laced letter showed up Oct. 15 at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle”s office.
The letter to Daschle is the only reported case of anthrax-tainted mail in the Washington area, but all mail destined for the city is routed through the Brentwood facility.
Congressional officials said the House and Senate would reconvene today, although their sprawling office buildings on Capitol Hill would remain shut. Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police said lawmakers would have offsite work space in nearby buildings.
In all, officials have tallied a suspected three deaths and nine other confirmed infections from anthrax nationwide, including six cases of the skin variety and the other three the more dangerous inhalation type.
Nearly six weeks after terrorists hijacked airliners and struck New York and Washington, and with American warplanes bombing Afghanistan, Ridge said the nation was fighting two fronts in the same war.
“There”s a battlefield outside this country and there”s a … battlefield inside this country,” he said.
On a day of rapidly unfolding events, Potter said the Postal Service had stopped cleaning its machinery with blowers, a procedure that could have caused lethal anthrax spores to spread through the air. He also said equipment was being purchased that “can eradicate and sanitize the mail.”
And Mitchell Cohen of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confessed that investigators did not understand how victims had inhaled anthrax because the letter to Daschle was taped shut. “This phenomena…is an evolution,” he said, “… How it”s actually occurring isn”t clear, and that”s part” of the investigation.”
Despite a heightened sense of alarm, hospital officials in suburban Maryland said one of the two men who died had originally been sent home from the emergency room, only to return a little more than 24 hours later and succumb quickly to his disease.
Dr. Venkat Mani, a spokesman at the Southern Maryland Medical Center in Clinton, said the cause of death of the 47-year-old man had been listed as preliminary pulmonary anthrax and septic shock.
In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would use money from the federal Superfund program to help decontaminate the American Media Inc. headquarters building in Boca Raton, Fla. One employee of the tabloid publishing firm died of the inhalation form of the disease more than two weeks ago, and a co-worker is hospitalized undergoing treatment.
In New Jersey, the FBI sought the source of least three anthrax-tainted letters that went through a mail facility in the Trenton area. The three included the letter delivered to Daschle”s office, as well one sent to NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw and another that turned up at The New York Post.
Nearly three weeks into the nation”s bioterrorism scare, the roster of anthrax victims included:
n One confirmed death of inhalation anthrax, the Florida tabloid employee, and the two other fatal cases in which the disease was believed involved.
n Three other cases of inhalation anthrax, the two postal workers hospitalized in suburban Virginia and a newspaper mailroom employee in Florida
n Six confirmed cases of the less dangerous skin form of the disease, including two who worked at the postal facilities in the Trenton area. The other victims have connections to the national news media, including NBC, ABC, CBS and The New York Post.