The circle of anthrax exposure widened significantly Thursday as health officials announced that one State Department mail worker has the inhaled form of the disease and a second employee has suspicious symptoms, even though neither man is known to have visited a contaminated postal facility or handled an anthrax-laced letter.
The discoveries alarmed health officials, who each day are learning new details that force them to reassess who is vulnerable to the disease and how the bacteria are spread.
And as the number of Americans advised to take anti-anthrax drugs climbed to more than 15,000, the new cases raise more disturbing questions about who is at risk.
"It is in fact the first case in our region that does not have a direct link, an 'I was in the back room' kind of link to the Brentwood facility," Dr. Ivan Walks, the District of Columbia's chief health officer, said of the confirmed State Department case.
Though the State Department receives its mail from Brentwood, the central mail processing facility in Washington that handled the anthrax-laden letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), officials said they don't know how the workers, who have been hospitalized, would have come in contact with dangerous anthrax spores. They could have handled mail contaminated by the Daschle letter or another contaminated letter.
Meanwhile, officials discovered the first evidence of anthrax contamination in a New York postal facility and announced that another NBC employee has a suspected case of skin anthrax.
And on Capitol Hill, two new anthrax hot spots, including an air-conditioning filter, were discovered in the Senate office building where the letter to Daschle was opened Oct. 15.
Combined, the developments suggest that the nation's anthrax scare is far from over. Government leaders continued to warn that additional contaminated letters could be circulating. They concede they are no closer to identifying the sender of the letters or the source of the anthrax spores.
Criticism of the Bush administration's response to the bioterrorist attacks grew Thursday amid reports that public health officials were not immediately alerted to the discovery that the anthrax samples found in the Daschle letter were far more lethal than those detected in a letter to the New York Post.
"The spores are smaller, therefore they're more dangerous because they can be more easily absorbed in a person's respiratory system," said Thomas J. Ridge, director of homeland security.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said they have not seen the letters, said they were unaware of the extremely potent form of the bacterium in the Daschle letter until two Washington postal workers died of the disease earlier this week.
Public health officials said they might have acted sooner to test or close Washington postal facilities had they known.
"I found out last night from folks on 'Nightline,' " Walks said Thursday.
Previously, health officials believed it was highly unlikely that inhalation anthrax could be contracted from a sealed envelope, particularly one the FBI told them was so tightly taped shut that it had to be opened with scissors, as the Daschle letter was. But the deaths earlier this week of two Washington postal workers suggested that those old assumptions are wrong.
Eager to show a united front, Bush administration officials rushed to turn the focus to those who sent the letters.
"The president is satisfied with the actions the government is taking," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "He will always continue to push the government to do more, to be vigilant and to remind the American people to be on alert. But the president places the blame full-square on the terrorists responsible."
Government officials refused to comment Thursday on reports that the anthrax in the letter to Daschle was chemically treated to prevent spores from clumping together. Scientists and others have suggested that the sophisticated technique, which makes the bacteria more lethal, suggests that the anthrax could only have originated in the United States, the former Soviet Union or Iraq.
Puzzlement Over Source of Illnesses
The latest confirmed inhalation case raises new worries for health officials because the State Department worker said he had never visited the Brentwood facility. The man worked in a suburban Virginia facility that handles State Department mail exclusively.
One possibility, officials said, is that the Daschle letter contaminated mail headed for the State Department. All government mail is sorted in the same section of the Brentwood facility. One of the two postal employees who died of inhalation anthrax this week worked in that department.
Another possibility, officials said, is that there may have been at least one other contaminated letter. "We cannot say that it was just one letter," said FBI spokesman Chris Murray.
As a result of the State Department illnesses, the CDC again expanded the number of people it said should immediately begin taking a 10-day cycle of antibiotics to include everyone who handles mail that is received in bulk from Brentwood.
Previously, the CDC recommended antibiotics only for postal workers and employees of private companies and government agencies who went to Brentwood to pick up large-volume mail.
As a precaution, the CDC said it now will test all government mail rooms for contamination, expanding their earlier plan to evaluate only the mail rooms of Brentwood's large-volume customers.
Despite the new cases, officials said they had no reason to believe that mail sent to homes from the Brentwood facility, which handles more than 1 million pieces daily, was dangerous.
"I don't believe that is the case," said U.S. Postal Service Vice President Deborah Willhite.
Technicians from the CDC are testing the State Department's Sterling, Va., facility for evidence of anthrax there, but so far no letter containing the microbes has been identified, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Five other State Department mail rooms that receive mail from Brentwood are being tested, and the department said it will not accept any mail until further notice.
All employees who work in State Department mail rooms in the United States have started taking Cipro. In addition, the State Department ordered that everyone who handles mail in the more than 220 U.S. embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions around the world should begin taking the antibiotic, Boucher said.
New Cases Suspected at NBC, in New Jersey
There were also reports Thursday of two additional suspected or possible cases: the NBC employee in New York and a second New Jersey postal worker who is showing signs of inhalation anthrax.
The CDC said Thursday that there are now 12 confirmed cases of anthrax infection, including the State Department employee, and five suspected cases.
In New York, the postal service said laboratory tests showed the presence of anthrax on four sorting machines at a huge facility that processes all of the mail for Manhattan.
Anxious workers demanded that the two-block-long building, which handles about 20 million pieces of mail a day, be closed until an environmental cleanup is completed.
The machines were in the path of anthrax-tainted letters mailed from Trenton, N.J., to Brokaw and the New York Post. An assistant to CBS News anchor Dan Rather and the child of an ABC producer contracted the skin form of the disease, but no contaminated letters were recovered at those networks.
Investigators cordoned off the area on the third floor of the nine-story Morgan Station building and arranged for additional testing by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The postal service said the facility would remain open, which drew protests from Louie Nikolaidis, a lawyer representing the New York Metro Area Postal Union.
"Workers will be required to work in the vicinity of the machines. We think that is not acceptable," said Nikolaidis, who threatened possible legal action against the Postal Service. "This is a substance that can move, and it puts our workers at risk. They should clean the facility and reopen it like they are doing in New Jersey."
So far, no postal workers in New York have tested positive for anthrax, but thousands have been issued antibiotics as a precaution.
On Capitol Hill, Daschle said late Thursday that two areas in the Hart Senate Office Building had been newly identified as contaminated by anthrax: an air-conditioning filter on the ninth floor and a stairwell connecting the eighth and ninth floors.
Daschle said, though, that experts considered these findings "neither a surprise nor a concern."
In all, at least four areas of the building have been shown to be contaminated. The other two are the fifth and sixth floors in the southeast sector of the building, site of Daschle's suite where an anthrax-laced letter was opened Oct. 10 and a freight elevator in the southwest sector of the building.
Late Thursday, CNN reported that traces of anthrax were found in a building at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., where incoming mail is sorted. U.S. officials told CNN that the amount was called "medically insignificant," but the building was closed until further testing and cleaning could be done.
No CIA personnel have tested positive for anthrax exposure, but antibiotics have been offered to all staff members who handle mail in bulk for the agency.
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Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Norman Kempster and Robert L. Jackson in Washington, and John J. Goldman in New York contributed to this report.