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Anthrax threat grows in Washington

By WILL SCHELTEMA   |   Oct. 22, 2001 at 7:27 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- With official word that another of their own was hospitalized with the more serious inhaled anthrax infection and two others had died from what is strongly suspected to be anthrax -- several postal workers at D.C. General Hospital shake their heads.

"This is getting worse," says Antoinine Tucker, who had been tested 20 minutes prior for exposure to the bacteria. "They didn't tell us anything, they should have done all this testing sooner."

She shakes the pill bottle, and 20 days worth of the antibiotic Cipro rattles. "This is what we get. I would rather know more about what's going on," Tucker says.

Camera crews and notebook-wielding reporters sweep past in the wake of the mayor, the head of the city's health department and a top postal official -- and their retinue of aides and guards -- as a news conference breaks up and the officials head inside.

"This is just going to be sensational," Tucker says. "These people know more than we do and we're the ones at risk."

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams called Monday afternoon's news conference to tell the city and the world what was going on after a weekend of anthrax scares: one confirmed case, spore found in congressional buildings, two large postal facilities closed and several thousand postal workers lining up for tests and medicine. And the news wasn't good.

Dr. Ivan Walks, head of the city's health department, gives the bad news. A second worker has been diagnosed with inhaled anthrax and was being treated at Fairfax Inova Hospital in suburban Virginia -- that same hospital that had announced Sunday it had the first confirmed case from the D.C. area.

And, Walks says, two employees who had worked at the Brentwood sorting facility, which serves congressional offices along with much of the rest of the city, had died. Tests for one of the dead were leaning toward anthrax, Walks says, and the other worker's tests were incomplete but his symptoms and clinical observation were what Walks calls "highly suspicious."

"For those of you who work there (at Brentwood or a similar sit near Baltimore Washington International Airport), go today -- that's today, let me emphasize -- to a health care facility, either here or in your neighborhood, and get checked, and treated if necessary," Walks says.

In the past, inhalation anthrax has had a high mortality rate of up to 90 percent or more. But Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher said Sunday: "We have better technology today. ... It is not yet hopeless."

The mail-related anthrax scare struck Washington last week when anthrax spores arrived in mail to Sen. Tom Daschle's at his Hart Senate Office Building office. The letter, which had been sent from Trenton, N.J., had passed through the Brentwood site. Twenty-eight congressional staffers and Capitol police officers have tested positive for anthrax exposure and are being treated with antibiotics. None have the disease.

Office buildings and some other legislative operations were closed during the weekend and Monday and Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police said they would remain locked down Tuesday as well. The Capitol building opened Monday morning, congressional leaders saying they wanted to send the message the legislative business of the United States would continue.

Six people nationwide have been diagnosed with skin anthrax, easily treated with antibiotics, and at least 34 have tested positive for exposure.

Four people have been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, including the two D.C. postal workers, Robert Stevens, a 63-year-old photo editor for Florida-based tabloid magazines who died two weeks ago, and his co-worker Ernesto Blanco, who is expected to make a full recovery.

Robert H. Smith Jr. is mad -- and a little sick, he says. "I got a headache, I got a sore throat, I feel tired," Smith said and rattled off symptoms that could be flu -- or anthrax. "We all should have been tested earlier."

Walks said full tests and sweeps of buildings were not done earlier because they did not appear to be indicated by the scientific facts at hand.

"It's a new day," Walks says. "We won't speculate on what might happen. We're just going to report to what we know has happened."

Earlier in the day, the Brentwood site was a ghost town, nestled in a decaying industrial neighborhood several miles from the Capitol. The only sign of life was a construction site several blocks away, where workers are bringing suburban life -- a Home Depot, a Kmart and a large grocery store -- into the city. Later, workers gathered there to take buses down to D.C. General Hospital.

Sunday night, more than a thousand workers went downtown to the city's courthouse area to get tests and medicine, but Monday they gathered at what had been the city's public hospital until earlier this year and now stands empty, except for a small clinic and emergency room.

Many of the city's residents had always looked to D.C. General for all their health care, for everything from flu to multiple bullet wounds. Now it is geared up to address a regional problem.

One of the postal workers died during the weekend at Greater Southeast Hospital, in the eastern fringes of the city near the Maryland line. The other died Monday at Southern Maryland Hospital about 10 miles into the suburbs in Clinton, Md. The two being treated are at a hospital in suburban Virginia.

"It's a regional problem," Walks says.

What had been a low roar in the distance comes closer and louder and the distinct wok-wok-wok of a helicopter becomes clear as a two-rotored military transport slides into view several hundred yards away.

"One of them save me from a rice paddy 30 years ago," says a postal worker going in for his test. He looks up toward the dull green Chinook. "I wonder what it can do for me today."

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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