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'I'll be safe,' Bush insists
Anthrax has been detected on a machine that opens letters bound for the White House, officials announced Tuesday, bringing the bioterrorism scare closer to another symbol of American power.
No one at the White House has tested positive for exposure to the bacteria, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said. The anthrax was found on the blade of a letter-slitting machine at a White House mail handling facility on a military base a few miles from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Officials do not believe the deadly spores were transmitted to the executive mansion.
"We're making sure the West Wing and the White House is safe," President Bush said. "I'm confident that when I come to work tomorrow, that I'll be safe."
The incident delivered another jolt to the nation's leaders as they grappled with the most extreme case of bioterrorism in the nation's history. Officials also confirmed that two Washington postal workers died this week of anthrax inhalation, as was suspected, and they announced that a postal worker in New Jersey is believed to have the severe respiratory form of the disease, the first time inhalation anthrax has been confirmed there.
In Washington, federal authorities defended themselves against accusations that they were ill-prepared and slow in responding to the anthrax outbreak. Some postal workers wondered aloud why officials took so long to test employees at Washington's central mail processing facility.
The White House's remote mail processing center was closed for more testing and decontamination, and employees at that center and in the executive mansion's mailroom were tested for anthrax exposure.
The president declined to say whether he had been tested for exposure, but in his brief comments he declared three times, "I don't have anthrax."
He also urged the nation to remain calm.
"This country is too strong to let the terrorists affect the lives of our citizens," Bush said. "I understand that people are concerned, and they should be. But they need to know their government is doing everything we possibly can to protect the lives of our citizens."
White House mail has been subjected to extra screening since Sept. 11, the U.S. Secret Service said, and it was this screening that revealed the anthrax traces. The bacteria have not yet been connected to a specific letter or parcel.
All mail going to the White House is initially processed at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, then sent on for special screening at the White House mail handling center on the military base. The two D.C. postal workers who died of anthrax worked at Brentwood, as do the two Washington-area workers with confirmed cases of inhaled anthrax.
Class difference suggested
Critics asked why health officials did not begin testing workers at the Brentwood center until last Sunday, five days after a letter carrying anthrax was discovered in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
In a congressional hearing Tuesday, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) compared this response to the immediate testing of those on Capitol Hill, suggesting that class differences may have been a factor.
"Members of Congress were given far quicker response than employees of the U.S. Postal Service when we faced this particular crisis," he said.
Public health officials said their response may not have been ideal, but they emphasized how much they are still learning about anthrax.
Health officials concede they were shocked that the letter to Daschle, which apparently was sealed and taped, was evidently able to spread airborne anthrax at the postal facility.
Although the letter to Daschle is the only report so far of anthrax sent to Washington, a sweep of the Capitol buildings 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, though such a letter has not been found.
Fleischer said the government should not be blamed.
"The president believes the cause of death was not the treatment made by the federal government or the local officials or anyone else," Fleischer said. "The cause of death was the attack made on our nation by people mailing anthrax."
But he added that from now on, authorities would act more rapidly.
Washington Mayor Anthony Williams said, "If we knew then what we know now, we would have acted earlier."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced new procedures, saying that if any new anthrax outbreaks occur, the government will immediately test all local post offices and give antibiotics to postal workers.
The U.S. has enough of the antibiotic Cipro to treat 2 million people for 60 days and would like to increase that to doses for 12 million people. Thompson has asked Congress to dramatically increase the federal bioterrorism budget from $300 million this year to $1.6 million next year, in part to accomplish that.
"This is a huge step forward," Thompson said Tuesday in testimony before Congress. "Is it enough for the future? No. Is it enough for this particular year? I think it's adequate."
The Bush administration also said Tuesday that it had won a major price concession from Bayer AG for Cipro, after the administration threatened to buy generic alternatives.
Kevin Keane of the Department of Health and Human Services said the government reached an agreement in principal with Bayer to buy the medicine for less than $1 a tablet. Bayer had planned to charge $1.83 a tablet.
The deal was reached after Thompson demanded that the company match prices charged by manufacturers of generic alternatives.
Elsewhere in Washington, Williams confirmed that two postal workers, Thomas L. Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen, had died of respiratory anthrax. Two other Brentwood employees, an express mail handler and a loading dock supervisor, remained in serious but stable condition at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia.
Health officials were monitoring 16 people, some of them postal employees, who had symptoms consistent with anthrax. Of the 16, only four were considered "serious," said Dr. Ivan Walks, Washington's chief medical officer.
Meanwhile, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will begin testing at all 36 Washington postal offices served by Brentwood. The CDC will provide antibiotics to everyone with access to the mail handling areas, a major shift from previous policy.
Dr. Rima Khabbaz, Director of the CDC Viral Diseases Branch, said that even if a letter containing anthrax rubbed up against another letter, there was little chance that anyone could contract inhalation anthrax from the second letter.
The FBI has moved to consolidate what had been separate investigations into the anthrax outbreaks into a single probe coordinated by the FBI's Washington field office.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, officially released pictures of the texts of the three anthrax-tainted letters sent to Daschle, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post. The contents had been widely reported, but the similarity of the handwriting and the messages was striking.
All are dated "09-11-01"--the date of the hijackings attacks--and the Brokaw and Post letters appear to be identical copies. "This is next," they say. "Take penacilin now. Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is Great."
The letter to Daschle is slightly different. "You can not stop us," it says. "We have anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great."
Investigators also continued to look for a connection between the anthrax outbreak and the hijackings that led to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the plane crashes at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
"I don't think there's a way to prove that, but I think we all suspect that," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Gephardt said the anthrax must have been processed by individuals with some expertise. He added that the sample from Daschle's office was "weapons-grade" and finely ground, or "milled," descriptions that have been the subject of considerable disagreement.
"I think we've got to stop parsing words and trying to be anything other than accurate about what this is," Gephardt said. "This is highly sophisticated material. It is small in size and it aerosolizes."
In New Jersey
The anthrax outbreak has also created havoc at the Postal Service in New Jersey, which served as a passageway for the anthrax-carrying letters.
Officials announced Tuesday that a postal worker from the Hamilton, N.J., processing facility near Trenton had tested positive for inhalation anthrax. Two other New Jersey postal workers had contracted anthrax infection of the skin, considered easily treatable.
The worker, who was not identified, has been hospitalized in serious but stable condition, officials said. Eddy Bresnitz, the New Jersey state epidemiologist, said the patient was "holding her own."
Doctors believe a fourth New Jersey postal employee, a maintenance worker from the Hamilton processing facility, has skin-based anthrax, but that has not been positively diagnosed.
Meanwhile, anthrax scares in several countries have led to precautionary measures. Fears overseas began to rise Thursday when the Kenyan minister of health announced that cloth samples sent to a Nairobi doctor had tested positive for anthrax. It was the first suspected case of anthrax outside the U.S.
On Tuesday, however, officials announced that the package was tainted with a harmless fungus or mildew.
Sean Mussenden of the Orlando Sentinel and Tribune news services contributed to this report.