2 D.C. Postal Workers Die; Anthrax Likely
Two postal workers in the nation’s capital have died of suspected inhalation anthrax, prompting health officials to acknowledge Monday that some of their key assumptions about how the deadly bacterium is spread may prove to be wrong.
District of Columbia officials announced the deaths of the two men, even as their co-workers waited in line at a local hospital to be tested for exposure to anthrax. Homeland security chief Thomas J. Ridge later said, “Their deaths are likely due to anthrax.”
If anthrax is confirmed as the cause of death, the unidentified men, ages 47 and 52, would be the second and third victims killed by the infection since the biological warfare agent first surfaced at a Florida tabloid office less than three weeks ago. Their deaths raised particular concerns because they may have succumbed to inhalation anthrax--the most lethal form of the disease--simply by working in a facility that handled contaminated mail.
Postal officials had been advised that a sealed envelope “would not transmit anthrax,” Postmaster General John Potter said Monday.
But the postal employees’ deaths Sunday night and Monday--plus two confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax among Washington postal workers and two New Jersey postal workers who have the more treatable skin form--have forced health and law enforcement officials to reevaluate their understanding of the disease.
“This is really a new phenomenon,” said Dr. Mitch Cohen of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “At first, we had no evidence that any of the mail handlers were at risk.”
The postal employees at Washington’s Brentwood central processing facility with inhalation anthrax--a dock supervisor and a courier--were in serious condition Monday. Nine additional Washington postal employees appear to have been exposed to anthrax.
A key focus of the FBI’s anthrax inquiry, officials said, is determining whether a single anthrax-laced letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on Oct. 8 from New Jersey could have exposed 13 postal employees at the Brentwood processing center--plus 28 in and near Daschle’s office. Traces of anthrax also were found over the weekend in the mail room of a House office building, but no cases of exposure have been reported there.
Authorities also are investigating whether the postal workers could have been infected by anthrax spores from contaminated letters or packages that have not been detected. But Ridge told reporters that the information to date “is consistent with the theory that this one letter could have contaminated the whole system.”
Postal officials vowed to continue delivering mail throughout the country without interruption, and Potter said the agency will take “extraordinary steps” to protect mail carriers. Local postal officials said they have already stopped using blowers to clean mail-sorting equipment, which some investigators said could have spread microscopic anthrax spores that might have escaped from an envelope during processing and settled on the equipment.
Officials said Monday that they are considering the purchase of ultraviolet light equipment, now used for treating meats and fruits, to “sanitize” the 200 billion pieces of mail handled by the U.S. Postal Service each year.
Reports of the two deaths, two infections and nine exposures at the Brentwood facility raised questions about whether authorities had done enough to protect its workers, and whether they should have acted earlier to close the facility.
Concern was high among the facility’s 2,000 employees, who have been issued gloves and masks for protection, and who came by the hundreds Monday to be tested at D.C. General Hospital for signs of anthrax exposure.
“People have a lot of anxiety,” said John Ford, 66, who worked with one of the men who died.
As investigators struggle to understand how the anthrax was being spread and by whom, they did not appear close to breaking the case, law enforcement officials said.
Key evidence may be found in the results of lab tests on the two men’s bodies to determine whether they died of anthrax.
A preliminary blood culture from one of the victims came back “positive for anthrax,” said Ivan Walks, director of the District of Columbia Health Department.
While health officials were still awaiting final test results Monday night, Ridge told reporters at a news conference that “it is very clear that their symptoms are suspicious and their deaths are likely due to anthrax.”
That suspicion, if confirmed, would bring to at least 12 the number of people in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Washington who have become infected this month with some form of anthrax--the first such cases in the United States in a quarter century.
Both men experienced severe respiratory problems before becoming critically ill and dying at separate hospitals in the Washington area, Ridge said.
Authorities did not identify the victims. One was a 47-year-old man who worked in the automated-sorting section of the mail facility. He went to the Southern Maryland Medical Center at 2 a.m. Sunday after fainting in church Saturday.
Doctors were unaware that he worked at a postal facility, and his complaints--abdominal cramps and nausea--were not typical of the flu-like symptoms associated with anthrax, said Dr. Venkat Mani, head of the hospital’s infectious diseases department. The man’s vital signs were stable, and he was diagnosed with a gastric disorder and sent home, Mani said.
He was rushed back to the hospital early Monday morning, where he was treated with high doses of antibiotics. He died later in the day.
Mani said that even if doctors had known that the victim worked for the postal service, that would “probably not” have saved him. “Even with the best treatment, the mortality rate [for inhalation anthrax] is 80% to 85%. . . . If this person had said, ‘I work at the postal facility,’ perhaps the physician would have done a nasal swab to test for anthrax exposure. But even then, the test results would have taken 24 to 48 hours.”
The second victim, a 52-year-old man, died at Greater Southeast Hospital on Sunday night after he was treated for possible anthrax exposure, the hospital said. He was believed to have worked in the section that handled government mail.
Effects of the anthrax scare also continued to ripple throughout the East Coast.
In Boca Raton, Fla., the Environmental Protection Agency said it would use money from the Superfund program to clean up the headquarters of tabloid publisher American Media Inc. Anthrax spores were discovered in the building after Sun photo editor Bob Stevens died of inhalation anthrax Oct. 5. Another employee is being treated for the disease, and a third tested positive for exposure to anthrax.
The agency will provide $500,000 in cleanup costs, but executives at the company have said that they do not want to return to the building.
In New York City, executives at CBS News confirmed that traces of anthrax had been found in anchor Dan Rather’s office and anteroom.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward said the discovery was anticipated after Claire Fletcher, a 27-year-old employee who opened mail for Rather, tested positive Oct. 18 for the cutaneous form of the disease. She has recovered with antibiotic treatment. Rather and other employees in his offices will be relocated until the offices are cleaned.
New York Gov. George Pataki returned to his Manhattan office on Monday, five days after an initial finding of anthrax. A total of 140 tests failed to discover the source of the spores, but the governor and 70 members of his staff were given antibiotics as a precaution.
Cleanup at the U.S. Capitol has been completed, and Congress is scheduled to reconvene today after health officials cleared the building’s use.
House and Senate office buildings will remain closed pending test results for signs of anthrax spores.
By the end of last week, the anthrax investigation was concentrated near Trenton, N.J., where about 150 FBI and federal agents swarmed the streets in search of information about the anthrax letters that were mailed from there to Daschle and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Ridge said Friday that FBI agents had identified the site from which the letters were sent, fueling hopes of a quick arrest.
Several street-corner mailboxes were taken as evidence and tested, but a federal law enforcement source in New Jersey said Monday that Ridge spoke “too quickly” in pinpointing the site of the mailings.
“That’s not to say that [the mailboxes] won’t turn up anything, but it hasn’t panned out so far,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Times staff writers Richard Simon and Megan Garvey in Washington and John J. Goldman in New York contributed to this report.