WASHINGTON (AP) The nation”s anthrax scare hit the White House yesterday with the discovery of a small concentration of spores at an off-site mail processing center. “We”re working hard at finding out who”s doing this,” President Bush said as bioterrorism claimed fresh victims along the East Coast.
Bush said the executive mansion was safe and twice said “I don”t have anthrax” despite the discovery of spores on a machine at the mail site a few miles from the White House. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said all employees at the site as well as mailroom workers in the White House itself were being “swabbed and tested.”
The startling disclosure capped a rapidly unfolding series of events in which officials announced additional confirmed and suspected cases of inhalation anthrax, Congress returned to work, and the administration pledged a more aggressive testing and treatment program if additional tainted letters are discovered.
Before the current outbreak, “We had had no cases of inhalation anthrax in a mail sorting facility,” said Jeffrey Koplan, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There was no reason to think this was a possibility.”
For his part, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson pushed Bayer Corp. to lower its price for Cipro, a front-line anti-anthrax drug, to less than $1 per pill. Bayer announced an “agreement in principle” with the government over the price.
Outside the White House, House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said “weapons-grade material” was responsible for spreading infections. And overseas, the State Department issued a worldwide alert warning U.S. citizens to be mindful of the risk of anthrax or other biological or chemical agents.
Six weeks after terrorists killed thousands in Washington and New York, administration officials drew a rhetorical connection to the outbreak of anthrax. The FBI released the text of three anthrax-tainted letters each of them dated Sept. 11, the date that hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
Bush believes the spread of anthrax “is another example of how this is a two-front war: that there are people who would seek to do evil to this country that there are people who mean us harm,” Fleischer said. “And they have mailed letters, obviously, to high impact places the news media, to Majority Leader (Tom) Daschle, perhaps, in this case, to the White House.”
The administration has been buffeted by criticism for waiting several days after the discovery of the letter addressed to Daschle before ordering testing at Brentwood, the central postal facility for the nation”s capital. Without acknowledging any shortcomings, several officials pointed to changes in their outlook.
“We”re going to err on the side of caution in making sure people are protected,” said Thompson.
“When a case of anthrax does emerge we will immediately move in at any and all postal facilities that might have handled that piece of mail,” he said. He spoke as the U.S. Postal Service offered antibiotics as a precaution to 7,000 employees of six Manhattan post offices that may have been in the path of anthrax-contaminated letters.
Koplan, appearing before a separate panel, said, “the public health system of the United States is severely challenged at this moment.”
The latest evidence of that was in the Washington area and New Jersey, at postal facilities known to have processed one or more anthrax-tainted letters in the past few weeks. Both were closed after the presence of anthrax was detected.
A government official said about half of 30 swabs taken at Brentwood in areas where the infected employees worked have tested positive for anthrax. Additional testing has begun to check other areas, including the building”s ventilation system, the official said.Postal Service Vice President Deborah Willhite said of the Washington facility: “It”s a crime scene because someone has been murdered.”
There, officials confirmed two postal worker deaths due to anthrax, and said the disease had sent more to the hospital. Thousands more mail employees were undoing tests and taking antibiotics.
Large amounts of government mail were being quarantined in trailers, waiting to be decontaminated before delivery in Washington, a senior postal official said yesterday, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams said final laboratory results confirmed inhalation anthrax as the cause of death of two men who worked at the city”s main Brentwood postal facility. Other officials said two more employees remain hospitalized with the disease, and said anthrax was suspected in an additional four cases. Anthrax-laced mail delivered last week to Daschle”s office was postmarked in Trenton, N.J., and went through the Brentwood facility.
“We do not need further testing,” said Dr. Ivan Walks, the city”s top health official. “But we need to treat. And we need to treat quickly.” He urged anyone who visited the back area of the central mail facility to come in for antibiotics.
Earlier, New Jersey officials announced that a woman had been hospitalized in the Trenton area and was presumed to be suffering from the inhalation form of the disease. “She”s holding her own,” said Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, the state epidemiologist.
The woman, whose name was not released, works at a Trenton-area postal facility believed to have processed at least three anthrax-laced letters one to Daschle, the second to NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw and the third to the New York Post.
Still later, officials in Montgomery County, Md., said they were checking three postal workers from Brentwood for possible anthrax symptoms at a local hospital. And state officials in Towson, Md., said one patient at a separate hospital is suspected of having the disease.
The FBI released copies of the spiked letters mailed to Daschle, Brokaw and the New York Post. All three contained anti-American and anti-Israeli messages.
“You can not stop us. We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great,” said the letter to Daschle.