WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- The House of Representatives and its offices closed Wednesday evening for a security sweep after 31 Capitol Hill staffers and police tested positive for exposure to anthrax, while around the country, police and fire departments struggled to respond to the growing scare. The U.S. Senate decided to remain formally open, but closed its three main office buildings as well.
Investigations also continued in Florida, and another discovery of anthrax was announced in New York -- in the office of the state governor.
By Wednesday evening, Congressional leaders and federal health experts told reporters that "several thousand" staffers, journalists and Capitol visitors had been tested with nasal swabs.
According to Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Ken Moritsugi, 23 staffers in Sen. Tom Daschle's office -- where the anthrax-bearing letter was opened Monday -- three in Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold's office and five Capitol Hill Police officers who responded to the incident had shown signs of exposure, but not infection. All were taking antibiotics and expected to be fine.
Feingold has an office next to Daschle's and the two reportedly have mailrooms that virtually touch, according to Daschle staff.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a medical doctor, said that despite a day of conflicting reports, "things are very much under control and everything's going to be OK." He described early tests as showing the anthrax to be "garden variety" and responsive to all antibiotics -- reducing fears that it had been bio-engineered as a drug-resistant weapon.
"We don't have all of the answers today," he admitted, pointing out "It's an evolving situation and has been a seminal event."
"The good news is everyone will be OK," said Daschle.
There was a great deal of confusion on Capitol Hill about where anthrax spores had been found. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, initially said they had been located in the Senate ventilation system and mailroom, but later said it was just a possibility. Daschle later said that no anthrax had been found anywhere other than his own office and the Senate mailroom in the Dirksen Office building.
Hastert's administrative office on Capitol Hill also had been quarantined for investigation of a suspicious package.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said the decision to close the House for precautionary sweeps was prudent. "In the world we live in today, this is the proper way to conduct business," he told reporters.
The Senate, however, chose not to close and sessions were to continue through Thursday. Senate staff offices would be closed and searched for anthrax, however.
"We will not let this stop the work of the Senate," Daschle said. The Senate had been scheduled, prior to the anthrax scare, to be out of session on Friday.
Several thousand people on Capitol Hill were tested for anthrax exposure and lines for testing were long again Wednesday. Some of those tested were from the U.S. Supreme Court. Those employees had visited the federal credit union in the nearby Hart Senate Office Building, the location of Daschle's office.
The anthrax to which workers in the Capitol Hill complex were exposed appears to be of the type that infects through the lungs -- the most deadly form which, if left untreated, is 90 percent fatal.
In New York, Gov. George Pataki announced Wednesday initial tests showed it was likely there were anthrax spores "in a secure area used by the State Police" at his Manhattan office.
"We don't know what the source is," Pataki said. The 38th and 39th floors of the office building were closed and will be cleaned over the weekend. Pataki said he and his staff were taking the antibiotic Cipro as a precautionary measure but he indicated he would not be tested for anthrax exposure.
A 7-month-old child of an ABC News employee and an aide to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, both in New York, have come down with a less deadly cutaneous anthrax infection, which is contracted when spores come in contact with cuts or abrasions in the skin.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Wednesday that while "there's no question that this particular anthrax is serious" it was too soon to draw any conclusions because laboratory tests were not complete.
In Florida's Martin County, north of Palm Beach County, a letter sent to a Planned Parenthood office tested positive for anthrax in an original screening. It was sent to a lab in Miami for further testing. Results are expected Thursday.
The letter was one of 91 similar letters sent to Planned Parenthood offices nationwide, including 15 in Florida. The letters contained powder and had a return address of the U.S. Secret Service in Atlanta. Police described it as an anti-abortion message with references to "Army of God."
More than 300 American Media Inc. employees in Boca Raton were to give a second blood sample Wednesday that will be tested for antibodies to anthrax bacteria. But health officials said even if the results are negative the staff will continue to take antibiotics as a precaution. Initial tests two weeks ago showed four employees with anthrax antibodies in their blood and a fifth who had inconclusive results.
Three employees of American Media have definitely tested positive for exposure based on nasal swabs. Photo editor Bob Stevens, 63, died of the disease Oct. 5. Mailroom employee Ernesto Blanco, 73, tested positive and was hospitalized for complications. He subsequently was diagnosed with an infection, but Wednesday that was in question. Doctors do expect him to recover.
Stephanie Dailey, whose duties include the mailroom, tested positive but returned to work. Former American Media intern Jordan Arizmendi of Florida International University also remained hospitalized with a respiratory problem. He originally had been suspected of sending the letter in the case because of a farewell memo that said, "You'll remember me from all the surprises I left around." He later was cleared by the FBI.
In Chicago, a white powder on the steps of a subway station turned out to be cleanser.
"You cannot be closing everything down because you see some white powder," Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said, trying to reassure the public. "People have to start calming down. ... Otherwise, you'll start closing down the economy ... and we cannot allow that to happen."
Because of the dozens of calls that have poured into 911 centers full, white-suited hazmat teams no longer are being dispatched in all cases. Rather, one or two emergency workers are responding with field test kits.
Michael Essex, special operations chief for the Miami Fire Department, said things are just "crazy."
"Our guys have not been back since 7 this morning," he said late Tuesday. "At one point we had so many units on these damn false alarms that we only had two trucks in the whole city left to fight fires."
He said a false alarm costs $200 to $300. Each overtime hour means time-and-a-half for experienced technicians earning about $28 an hour.
Chuck Lanza, chief of Miami's Office of Emergency Management, said, "When we start arresting some of the people who are doing these things, it will slow down." He said Miami-Dade County fire-rescue fielded 240 suspicious mail calls plus the normal 400-500 general calls.
The FBI in Dallas said it was operating near capacity. "This has come to the point where it's actually keeping us from being able to do our job. The system, quite frankly, is getting overloaded," said Danny Defenbaugh, special agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office.
The Fort Worth Fire Department said Tuesday was the worst day they have had so far with calls that turned out to be nothing, about 50 by 3:30 p.m. "We are rethinking how we will respond to these things in a safe manner to not overextend the resources we have," spokesman Kent Worley said.
Boston fire officials said they are prioritizing when they use special kits to test for anthrax or other biological agents. Lt. Richard Parker, who coordinates hazardous materials for the department, said since Friday teams have responded to more than 200 calls for suspicious substances and used the quick test kits in about 20 of those instances to make on-scene analysis.
(With reporting from P. Mitchell Prothero, Nicholas M. Horrock and Ellen Beck in Washington, Les Kjos in Miami, Marcy Kreiter in Chicago, Phil Magers in Dallas and David Haskell in Boston)