Fears spread over anthrax

Hundreds line up for tests, antibiotics - just in case

False alarms nationwide

October 10, 2001|By Michael Stroh and Todd Richissin | Michael Stroh and Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

BOCA RATON, Fla. - Investigators continued to comb the headquarters of the nation's largest supermarket tabloids yesterday for clues to two anthrax cases while hundreds of people lined up to be tested for the disease and take antibiotics - just in case.

Authorities said it would be two or three days before they have results of tests conducted on more than 800 employees who worked in or visited the building, home of American Media Inc., publisher of The National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids.

"We're testing everything at this point," said Frank Penela, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health.

One man who worked in the building has died from anthrax and a second person, a mailroom employee, has been exposed, officials said.

Though the incidents apparently are confined to one building, the psychological effects have traveled widely. Yesterday, in several parts of the country, envelopes that were delivered merely with dirt or grains of sand on them led authorities to evacuate entire buildings.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has said investigators suspect that a person - rather than a fluke of nature - was responsible for the two cases. Law enforcement officials have said that if their investigation does become a criminal matter, it is not clear whether it would involve terrorism or a personal dispute.

Yesterday, federal investigators wrapped yellow tape around the banyan trees surrounding American Media while teams of investigators entered the building outfitted in white biohazard suits.

Investigators with the FBI, Centers for Disease Control and local health authorities worked through the night Monday and all day yesterday swabbing desks and air ducts to test for anthrax.

Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor at The Sun tabloid, died Friday after inhaling anthrax spores, the first case in the United States since 1976. Investigators later found traces of the bacteria that causes anthrax on his computer keyboard.

A second employee, Ernesto Blanco, 73, was found to have an anthrax spore in his nostril, but tests to see whether he had contracted the disease are pending. He was in a Miami hospital, reportedly for an unrelated ailment.

At a news conference yesterday, state health officials said tests of Stevens' home proved negative for anthrax spores, which seemed to indicate the outbreak was confined to the American Media building. They said initial lab tests suggested that the strain of anthrax in the two cases appeared to be natural, rather than bioengineered. Bioengineered strains are manipulated to resist antibiotics, making them more deadly.

The mystery surrounding the incidents has started to work on the psyches of residents in South Florida. Investigators, who have asked for help, are being inundated with false alarms and rumors.

At yesterday's briefing, a spokesman said the FBI had questioned an intern who had sent e-mail to the company promising a "surprise" for former coworkers. FBI officials said they have interviewed the student and are satisfied he is not connected to the incidents.

Another reported lead, that the tabloid company received a letter addressed to singer Jennifer Lopez that contained a powdery white substance, has been called a rumor by law enforcement officials.

Police reported several frantic calls from people who received what they considered suspicious packages or envelopes in the mail. All turned out to be unfounded.

A fire station in Weston, 15 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, was quarantined for 12 hours after a man found an envelope sprinkled with white powder inside. It turned out to be harmless. In Naples, two office buildings were sealed for about three hours because of another powder found with the mail.

In Virginia, a man who may have worked in a building owned by AMI was tested Monday night after going to the hospital with flu-like symptoms and signs of confusion. Doctors said yesterday that tests indicated he probably was not suffering from anthrax.

In Washington yesterday, President Bush again urged Americans to go about their business - but with a bit more caution.

The discovery of anthrax in Florida was a sign that reporting mechanisms are working, he said. "There is a system in place to notify our government, and governments, in the case of some kind of potential biological incident or chemical incident, and the system worked," he told reporters.

At the building in Boca Raton, though, the worries were hard to ignore.

Health officials have asked anyone who has spent more than an hour in the building since Aug. 1 to come in for testing and antibiotics. Alina Alonso, clinical services director for the Palm Beach County Health Department, said 743 people had visited the clinic Monday. By late yesterday, over 100 more had come in. In addition to employees, FedEx drivers, sandwich deliverymen, relatives of employees and anybody else who had entered the American Media building were asked to be tested and accept treatment.

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