Anthrax spreads

By ELLEN BECK, UPI Science Writer  |  Oct. 30, 2001 at 4:51 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- The anthrax scare that spread deeper into the federal government in the past week further extended its reach Tuesday into New York, Florida and New Jersey -- including confirmation of a case of inhalation anthrax in a hospital worker not associated with the post office or a media outlet.

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 a 61-year-old woman from the Bronx, who works at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, sometimes in their mailroom, was in "very serious" condition with what is believed to be the city's first inhalation anthrax infection.

Giuliani said the hospital was closed but initial environmental testing of the building has come back negative for anthrax. Results of additional testing were 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)." Those interviewed also were being given antibiotics as a precautionary measure.

Anthrax was found at the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center in Manhattan, which processes 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., 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 taking antibiotics and recuperating at home.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, told reporters Tuesday that 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. They are studying the question since anthrax infections were found in two people who were not postal workers and not in the media and had not, therefore, received anthrax letters directly,

CDC Director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan said Tuesday he still believed the risk to the general public was "very small but not zero." He said people who received suspicious mail at home should immediately wash their hands, isolate the package or letter and call local authorities. He said any general risk would be more for cutaneous or skin anthrax infection.

State Department officials told United Press International Tuesday one of the anthrax spores found in its mailroom this weekend was in the same location as a "suspicious white powder" found earlier this month.

The mailroom, which one State Department official said was where the department handled its congressional correspondence, was inspected by the FBI's counter terrorism unit and said to contain no anthrax.

If investigators draw a connection between the earlier scare and the current results from anthrax testing inside the State Department, the timing of the two events would suggest there were two separate sources of anthrax. So far the only known source of anthrax was contained in the letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters Tuesday his office is in negotiations with the Department of Defense on acquiring some of its anthrax vaccine. The CDC has recommended laboratory technicians and other civilians involved in the anthrax investigation or cleanup of infected sites be vaccinated to ensure they do not become infected. He said negotiations began last week and added while DOD is not opposed to sharing its limited supply, which is intended for military troops, Thompson said it "wants to make sure what HHS is asking for is a supply they can afford to give up."

He also said the Food and Drug Administration, within the next two weeks, will inspect BioPort Corp., in Lansing, Mich., to see if remodeling done at its pharmaceutical production facility meets regulatory requirements for making the vaccine. The company was not been able to meet FDA manufacturing regulations in the past. Thompson said if FDA approves the site, BioPort, the only anthrax vaccine maker in the United States, could be making new vaccine supplies by Nov. 22.

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.

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 facility in suburban Northern Virginia and at the Friendship Heights Post Office in the District of Columbia. Cleanup has begun at both facilities. Washington Mayor Anthony Williams said Tuesday that anthrax tests at three area post offices were positive and 32 negative. Results were pending for eight post offices and five facilities remained to be tested.

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 Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported Tuesday it would send to the United States equipment to sterilize the mail to remove any anthrax spores.

Russian Academy of Sciences Vice President Gennadiy Mesyats told ITAR-TASS a "big contract" was being negotiated. "The Americans have contacted us immediately after the first case of anthrax spores detected in mail, as they recognize that our sterilization equipment is the best in the world," Mesyats said. He said the equipment is a desktop machine that can instantly sterilize 200,000 letters.

The CDC has confirmed 16 cases of inhalation and cutaneous anthrax infection, including three people who died from the inhaled form of the disease. Ten are confirmed inhalation anthrax cases -- one in New York, two in Florida, two in New Jersey and five in Washington. Six are confirmed cutaneous -- three in New York and three in New Jersey.

(With additional reporting Eli J. Lake and Dee Ann Divis in Washington, Alex Cukan in New York and Les Kjos in Miami.)

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