Anthrax hits Capitol Hill

Senate leader's aide opens letter bearing powder with bacteria

Abortion clinics threatened

Infant in N.Y., man who works for Fla. tabloid have disease

War On Terrorism : Anthrax

October 16, 2001|By Karen Hosler and Frank D. Roylance | Karen Hosler and Frank D. Roylance,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle became a target of an apparent anthrax attack, when an aide to the South Dakota Democrat opened an envelope yesterday containing powder that tested positive for the germ.

Two more cases of anthrax came to light yesterday. In New York, officials at ABC News said last night that the infant son of an employee has been diagnosed with the skin form of anthrax. The child, who was not identified, was said to be responding well to treatment.

In Florida, a 73-year-old employee of the tabloid newspaper company where one man died from the disease was also confirmed to have contracted anthrax. The Florida man, previously identified as having been exposed to the disease, was said to be recovering.

In Washington, about 50 Capitol Hill employees who may have come in contact with the letter to Daschle were tested and treated with antibiotics. There was no sign last night that anyone had contracted the disease as a result of the incident.

President Bush was the first to reveal the apparent attack, the first on a U.S. government official and the first in the nation's capital since the wave of bioterror began.

"I just talked to leader Daschle," Bush said at the White House just after noon. "He is obviously concerned, as am I."

Bush said there may be "some possible link" between the attack and Osama bin Laden.

"We're making sure that we connect any dots that we have, to find out who's doing this," Bush said. "I wouldn't put it past him, but we don't have hard evidence."

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that "just circumstantially, one has to worry ... because of the timing."

Federal authorities say they are now investigating whether followers of bin Laden are behind the anthrax cases around the nation.

This represents a significant shift in the thinking of investigators, who had speculated earlier that the initial case in Florida was an isolated criminal act unconnected with the Sept. 11 attacks.

The shift of the investigation is based not on definitive proof but on circumstantial information drawn from cases in recent days, such as the postmarks on the letters known to contain anthrax. Each was sent from places near where terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks lived or visited.

The letter sent to Daschle's office and one sent to NBC News in New York were postmarked Sept. 18 in Trenton, N.J., postal officials said. An assistant to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw contracted an anthrax skin infection after opening the envelope weeks ago.

At the Trenton mail processing center, Postal Inspector Tony Esposito said two employees - a letter carrier and a maintenance worker - had complained of headache and mild fever. But there was no evidence that they, or any other postal worker there, had been exposed to anthrax.

Esposito said the Trenton center processes and postmarks mail from 46 nearby post offices, with ZIP codes beginning with 085 or 086. The center processes 400,000 to 600,000 pieces of mail daily. Esposito expressed confidence that inspectors would be able to trace the NBC letter to the post office from which it was mailed

Nationwide, 13 people are known to have been exposed to anthrax since the incidents began, including Robert Stevens, the sole fatality. He contracted the deadly inhaled form of the disease.

Two other American Media employees were tested and found to have been exposed to anthrax. One of them, AMI mailroom employee Ernesto Blanco, 73, is now believed to have the inhaled form of anthrax - the third case of anthrax in the United States to be diagnosed since Oct. 4.

Although the strictest diagnostic criteria have not yet been met, the Florida Department of Health said the man's symptoms and positive test suggest that he has anthrax. Officials said he is improving, and that they are "encouraged by his progress."

A small number of anthrax spores were found in the post office that handled mail for AMI, it was announced yesterday. Employees who work in that part of the building have received nasal swabs that tested negative for anthrax, a postal inspector said.

The fourth case, involving the infant son of an ABC News employee, was disclosed last night, hours after doctors confirmed a preliminary diagnosis of cutaneous anthrax, the type contracted by Brokaw's assistant.

ABC News President David Westin, citing privacy concerns, refused to identify the ABC employee whose child was infected. The infant, who according to the Associated Press is 7 months old, spent several hours on two floors of the ABC building on West 66th Street in New York on Sept. 28.

Westin, who said the child has an "excellent prognosis," said there was no indication that anyone else at ABC had been infected.

He cautioned others in the news media not to jump to conclusions and said the child might have been exposed elsewhere. But, he called it "quite a coincidence" that the infection followed the child's visit to the ABC building.

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