Anthrax spreads ...

By ELLEN BECK  |  Oct. 30, 2001 at 12:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- The anthrax scare that has spread through the federal government in the past week also extended its reach in New York, Florida and New Jersey Tuesday, including diagnosis of the infection in two people who are not postal or media workers.

In Washington, meanwhile, Postmaster General John Potter defended the U.S. Postal Service's actions in keeping the Brentwood mail facility open and workers inside after an anthrax letter handled there was delivered to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's Hart building office on Oct. 15.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the 61-year-old woman from the Bronx who works at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital's mailroom was in "very serious" condition and on a respirator with what is believed to be the city's first inhalation anthrax infection. Preliminary tests have come back positive but final test results were pending.

Giuliani said the hospital was closed but initial environmental testing of the building has come back negative for anthrax. Results of additional testing was expected later Tuesday.

Giuliani said some 300 people who had been at the hospital, including hospital personnel, were being interviewed "to try to find out the location or anything that might have caused this (infection)." He said those being interviewed also were being given antibiotics as a precautionary measure.

Anthrax was found at Morgan Processing and Distribution Center in Manhattan, which processes the 20 million pieces of mail for Manhattan and the Bronx each day. The CDC said at least 12 New York area postal workers have been referred to dermatologists for suspicious skin infections since last Thursday.

In the Trenton, N.J., postal area, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta confirmed, a 51-year-old woman has tested positive for cutaneous anthrax infection. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the woman is an accountant at a company downstream from the Hamilton Township postal facility, which has tested positive for anthrax. The woman was placed on antibiotics and is recuperating at home.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, told reporters Tuesday since anthrax infections are now confirmed in two people who were not postal workers and not in the media, which has received anthrax letters directly, experts are "intensively" looking at the current health community belief the public stands little chance of contracting anthrax by handling mail that comes to their homes.

In Florida, more than 1,000 workers from the main post office in Palm Beach County were offered antibiotics Tuesday as a precaution against anthrax. Environmental tests found anthrax spores in four locations in the post office, which sorts the mail for the entire county.

The spores were found on sorting machines and in one other piece of equipment. Each location had only a tiny number of spores, usually three or less.

Dana Cleborne, spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, said there are no plans for testing at any more branches in the county and the main post office will remain open.

Federal cleanup crews also said they found tiny bits of anthrax in new parts of the American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton, also in Palm Beach County. The Environmental Protection Agency found traces of anthrax in the first-floor lobby and in the first-floor library, said Fred Stroud of the EPA.

"They could have been carried by workers in the building, the FBI or our samplers. Somebody might have carried something from a counter and laid it down," he said. "It indicates we won't have that big of a cleaning."

About 900 employees and visitors to the buildings are taking antibiotics. Health officials said they are having trouble interpreting blood tests taken from them, listing them as "exposed" because they had been in the building.

The FBI said cars once owned by suspected terrorists Mohamed Atta and Waleed Alshehri have tested negative for anthrax spores. Spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said the FBI got the cars from a dealership that bought them from the two men, who died Sept. 11 in the attacks on the World Trade Center. "Now they're just going after them for fingerprints and hairs and fibers and that kind of stuff," she said.

A small amount of anthrax was found at two additional postal sites in the Washington area, at the Dulles area in suburban Northern Virginia facility and one at Friendship Heights in the District of Columbia. Cleanup has begun at both facilities.

Potter told a Senate hearing Tuesday that "all along, the postal service has operated on the principle of open disclosure." He said the Brentwood postal facility was not closed until after a postal worker was hospitalized on Oct. 19 because prior to that the best scientific evidence indicated postal employees would not be exposed to anthrax unless they actually opened a piece of mail containing the spores.

Following that first diagnoses of inhalation infection in a postal worker, it became evident that through regular mail process procedures, the spores could seep through the pores of envelopes and become airborne.

"We were operating in good faith, trying to make the right decisions," Potter said.

Potter said the postal service bought millions of masks and gloves for its employees, some 13,000 of whom were placed on protective antibiotics in New York, Washington and New Jersey alone.

The CDC confirmed 15 cases of inhalation and cutaneous anthrax infection, including three people who died from the inhaled form of the disease.

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