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Anthrax Investigation Broadens in 3 States

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The investigation into anthrax contamination widened Saturday, with packages testing positive for the deadly bacterium in Nevada and New York and five more employees at a Florida media company testing positive for exposure to anthrax spores.

With anthrax cases or samples confirmed in three states, U.S. Postal Service authorities fanned out across the nation in an attempt to find any other potentially contaminated envelopes or packages. The effort came with assurances that nothing would curtail the delivery of hundreds of millions of pieces of mail every day.

The expanding case and growing anxiety Saturday triggered false alarms, company lock-downs and at least three airplane scares, including one in California.

The number of people confirmed to have been infected with anthrax remains at two: an employee of American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., who died Oct. 5 of an inhaled form of the bacterium and an NBC employee in New York who is recovering from a less dangerous form contracted through a cut in her skin.

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In Nevada on Saturday, Gov. Kenny Guinn said a test confirmed traces of the bacterium in pornographic material mailed from Malaysia to a Microsoft office in Reno. No one in the office is known to be infected with the disease, but four employees have been tested for possible exposure.

Guinn said the risk to public health is “very, very low.”

“While this test is consistent with anthrax, further testing must be done to determine if this strain is disease-carrying or a nonthreatening vaccine strain,” Guinn said at a news conference. A sample has been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In New York, health officials said Saturday that a second NBC employee has developed possible symptoms of anthrax, including a low-grade fever, swollen lymph nodes and a rash. She is being treated with antibiotics.

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The woman was the first person to open an envelope there that also is suspected of infecting a 38-year-old assistant to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. The envelope was postmarked Sept. 18 in Trenton, N.J. It contained a brown granular substance, most of which was discarded, said Barry Mawn, head of the FBI’s New York office.

Initially, investigators suspected a letter to Brokaw postmarked Sept. 20 in St. Petersburg, Fla., the same place of origin as a suspicious letter received Friday by New York Times reporter Judith Miller. But the white powder in both letters repeatedly tested negative for any hazard. The second letter to Brokaw was turned over to investigators after the NBC employee recalled opening it weeks earlier.

And in Florida, seven other people who worked at American Media Inc., publisher of supermarket tabloids, now have tested positive for anthrax exposure. None has become ill, but all are taking antibiotics.

The CDC notified the company Saturday that five more employees had antibodies of anthrax in their blood, company spokesman Gerald McKelvey said. “It means they had an exposure,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they have anthrax.”

Officials still have not determined how the employees were exposed to anthrax spores.

Health officials are waiting for results of more than 35 anthrax tests checking employees and visitors to the company’s headquarters. About 20 postal employees who handled the company’s mail are also awaiting test results.

In Washington, senior federal law enforcement officials said initial indications were that the Nevada, New York and Florida cases were not related.

But they said they were reacting quickly to the new reports of exposure, comparing methods of mailing, handwriting and other evidence to see whether they were linked and to determine whether the pieces of mail were sent as terrorist acts or perhaps by some other disgruntled person or group.

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“Clearly, we are taking all logical investigative steps to compare evidence from all three locations, but at this point we are not aware of any links between the three,” said a senior Justice Department official. Postal Service investigators are attempting to “back-trace” those letters already identified as containing anthrax.

“We are on high alert, definitely. We have so many agents on this thing, the emphasis is no less than at the FBI,” said one senior Postal Service official.

Although acknowledging that Postal Service employees are nervous about the threats of biological and chemical attacks, the official added: “We are trying to keep the mail safe, but we have a service to perform, and we are going to continue to deliver the mail,” he said. “We are continuing to do our job.”

That promise was doubted by former Postal Inspector Tony Muljat, one of the lead investigators on the FBI’s task force investigating the Unabomber, the name used by Ted Kaczynski, who used the U.S. mail to send package bombs.

Muljat said Saturday that he wouldn’t be surprised if mail delivery is stopped soon because he said the Postal Service is unprepared to screen mail for hazardous materials.

“If mail continues to be found with anthrax, it’s going to be curtailed and it’s not going to be delivered,” said Muljat, 63, who retired in 1997 and lives in Sacramento.

President Bush tried to calm anxious Americans on Saturday, urging them not to overreact and declaring that the government is doing everything it can to keep citizens safe.

“I understand that many Americans are feeling uneasy,” he said in his weekly radio address. “But all Americans should be assured we are taking strong precautions, we are vigilant, we are determined. The country is alert, and the great power of the American nation will be felt.”

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But even as officials made advances on some threats and dismissed others, new scares popped up. US Airways Flight 121 from Charlotte, N.C., to Denver, carrying 60 passengers and five crew members, was diverted to Indianapolis on Saturday after a flight attendant found a powdery substance in a trash can on the plane. The flight attendant went through decontamination, but the substance was later determined to be nontoxic, an airline spokesman said.

About 80 passengers and five crew members were held for three hours aboard a United Airlines jet after landing in San Jose on Saturday afternoon after a man reportedly stood up in mid-flight and released a substance into the air ventilation system. The substance turned out to be confetti from a greeting card.

At Washington’s Dulles International Airport, a spokeswoman said a powdery substance was found in a restroom on a United plane from London and was being tested at an Army laboratory in Maryland. The flight was met by a hazardous materials team and FBI agents.

Reports of suspicious substances, ominous powders and other anxiety also fueled “incidents” around California.

Four people in Santa Rosa were taken to the hospital after a worker came into contact with a suspicious substance at the main post office. The four were treated at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and released, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

Post offices in Huntington Beach and Tustin were also evacuated after reports of suspicious packages or powders, and a Macy’s department store in the Laguna Hills Mall was cleared after customers there reported a suspicious powder.

As a precaution, officials at Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Culver City lot called authorities after an employee reported opening a suspicious letter. The man was taken to a local hospital for testing.

“It looks like it was a false alarm,” said Sony spokeswoman Susan Tick. “No evidence of any white powder was found. Everyone is just so jittery.”

Anna Long, Chief of Staff of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said her office had received 20 to 25 such reports over the last two days and performed tests on those deemed to pose the most credible threats.

“The ones that we’ve tested have all been negative,” Long said. “It’s uncomfortable having so many hoaxes because a lot of resources go into responding to them. This isn’t a time for jokes.”

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Staff writers Meg James in Los Angeles, Tina Borgatta in Orange County, Marlene Cimons and Elizabeth Jensen in New York, Julie Tamaki in Reno and Associated Press contributed to this report.


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