Anthrax kills two D.C. postal workers
By Laura Meckler
WASHINGTON Officials today confirmed anthrax as the cause of death of two postal workers in the nation's capital. A mail handler in New Jersey also was believed suffering from the inhaled form of the disease.
Washington-area postal workers line up outside the District of Columbia Hospital today as they wait to be examined for anthrax. About 3,400 employees will receive antibiotics and undergo evaluations.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended federal health authorities who initially opted not to test the Brentwood facility after learning it had handled an anthrax-tainted letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
"The president believes the cause of death was not the treatment made by the federal government or the local officials, or anyone else, but the cause of death was the attack made on our nation by people mailing anthrax," he said.
Defending his agency, Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC never suspected that anthrax could leak out of a sealed letter.
"We had had no cases of inhalation anthrax in a mail sorting facility," he said. "There was no reason to think this was a possibility."
At the same time, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said that if additional tainted letters are found, officials would move more aggressively to test and treat any workers at postal facilities that handled them.
The developments unfolded as Attorney General John Ashcroft said investigators "are not able to rule out an association with the terrorist acts of September 11, but neither are we able to draw a conclusive link at this time."
Congress returned to work for the first time since an anthrax scare spread across Capitol Hill last week. House and Senate office buildings remained closed for additional environmental testing, and two sources said authorities may decide to burn piles of mail for fear they could never check them adequately for anthrax.
So far there are three known deaths due to inhalation anthrax nationwide. At least three others are hospitalized with the inhalation form of the disease, and six have been diagnosed with the less dangerous skin form of the disease.
In Washington, one senior Postal Service official said roughly 3,400 employees across the nation's capital need to be evaluated and get at least 10 days' worth of antibiotics.
More than 2,000 workers at Brentwood, where anthrax has been found in 14 spots, will need a full 60-day course. Those at auxiliary offices were beginning preventive treatment while their work sites are tested.
In all, Walks said, the city knew of two patients hospitalized with inhalation anthrax, two postal workers confirmed dead of the disease and four people with symptoms that are suspicious. He said officials are watching 12 other cases but they are of "very low suspicion" for anthrax.
The disclosure came as New Jersey Health Commissioner George DiFerdinando said a mail handler in his state was believed to have contracted inhalational anthrax and was hospitalized in serious but stable condition. The woman works at a facility that processed at least three anthrax-tainted letters mailed to Washington and New York.
The FBI confirmed it is investigating whether other anthrax letters were processed through the Brentwood facility. The facility, which handles mail for the entire District of Columbia, was declared a crime scene today.