Postal worker sick with inhaled anthrax

Officials confirmed Sunday that a postal worker at the Washington sorting center that handles mail bound for the Capitol is "gravely ill" with the inhaled form of anthrax, bringing to three the number of confirmed cases of the life-threatening infection.

As the Postal Service ordered other workers at the sorting center to report for testing, hazardous materials teams scoured for evidence of anthrax spores on Capitol Hill, where an anthrax-tainted letter was sent last week.

Congressional leaders announced that all House and Senate office buildings would remain closed Monday, though the main Capitol building will be open for limited use. Legislative business is scheduled to resume Tuesday.

The House shut down Wednesday amid concerns about further contamination of the Capitol complex after delivery of an anthrax-laced letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office. Since then, thousands of Capitol Hill workers have lined up for nasal swabbing to test for exposure and antibiotics to take as a precaution.

Spores have turned up in four areas and 28 people have tested positive for exposure, according to Capitol Hill authorities.

The unidentified Washington postal worker is the third person to be diagnosed with the serious, inhaled form of anthrax since letters laced with the bacteria began arriving at media outlets and at least one government office. The other six confirmed anthrax cases have been the more easily treated, skin form of infection.

A photo editor at a Florida tabloid publishing company died earlier this month after he contracted inhaled anthrax, and a mailroom worker at the same company is undergoing treatment for the same form of infection.

District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams said the Washington postal worker was "gravely ill." He was listed in serious but stable condition at a suburban hospital, where he went to the emergency room for treatment Friday. The anthrax diagnosis was confirmed Sunday morning.

"Anytime you get to the point of inhalation anthrax, it's very serious," said Surgeon General David Satcher on CNN's "Late Edition." "In the past, it's been like 80 percent fatal or more. But that's in the past. We have different technology today."

Testing for 2,000 employees

The Postal Service ordered the central Washington mail-sorting center closed, along with an airmail facility at Baltimore-Washington International Airport where the employee also worked. More than 2,000 employees at the two sites were asked to report for anthrax testing and begin precautionary treatment with antibiotics.

Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, chief of the Washington Health Department, said that at least two other people who work at the Washington center had fallen ill and were being closely watched.

Deborah Willhite, a senior vice president of the Postal Service, said both sites are being tested for the presence of anthrax spores, but the results were not yet available.

Daschle letter link explored

Explaining that the matter is under investigation, Willhite declined to answer questions on whether the postal worker had come into contact with the infected letter sent to Daschle.

However, the worker's duties she described suggested it was unlikely he would have come into direct contact with the letter. The infected postal worker helped shuttle expedited packages between the airmail center and the sorting facility. The letter to Daschle was sent by 1st-class mail.

Although the letter to Daschle is the only report so far of anthrax sent to Washington, a sweep of the Capitol buildings has identified anthrax spores in a House of Representatives mailroom. That suggests at least one other infected letter or package may have arrived on Capitol Hill, and workers in that mailroom are receiving antibiotics as a precaution, said Dr. John Eisold, attending physician at the Capitol.

The infected letter to Daschle was postmarked in Trenton, N.J., as were letters to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and at least one letter to the New York Post. The three envelopes were addressed with similar block letters.

Two postal workers in the Trenton mail-processing center have been diagnosed with skin infections of anthrax, and preliminary tests showed signs that many surfaces in the work area were contaminated with anthrax, a local postal official said Sunday. Thirteen of 23 samples taken from the work area tested positive for anthrax spores.

Tests showed no contamination of a public area in the center, where stamps are sold and people have post office boxes, the official said.

Although cases of skin infections have been confirmed among workers or visitors to all three major television networks, sweeps of the network offices have not found any evidence that anthrax spores remain, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Sunday.

Anthrax infections are caused by the same bacteria and can be fatal whether contracted through the skin or by inhalation. But skin infections develop more slowly and are easier to identify through skin lesions, so they are more easily treated. So far, nine people in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Washington have fallen ill from anthrax exposure, three of them with the more-dangerous pulmonary version.

Flulike symptoms

Inhalation anthrax's initial symptoms are similar to the flu, usually followed a few days later by difficulty breathing and by shock. A third form of anthrax, gastrointestinal anthrax, can be contracted by eating contaminated food. But it is the rarest form and has not emerged during the current scare.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is a physician, offered a possible scenario for how anthrax spores could have entered someone's lungs from an infected letter.

"As the postal machinery and sometimes the workers compress it, the anthrax can come out. Most of the envelopes were sealed all around, and the theory is that it came out in a burst of air and that's how it's inhaled," Frist said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Coming just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, suspicion has centered on Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden. But no evidence to support that theory has emerged.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview with CNN, was asked whether Iraq might be involved in the anthrax bioterrorism.

"I just don't know. ... I don't put it past Iraq. We know they have been working on this kind of terror weapon and we keep a very close eye on them," Powell said.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that he considers it likely the attacks are being perpetrated by a sophisticated organization.

Tribune staff reporter Mickey Ciokajlo contributed to this report from Trenton, N.J.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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