Md. senators taking antibiotics as precaution

Mikulski and Sarbanes tested, put on medicine in capital anthrax scare

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 17, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman and Susan Baer | Ellen Gamerman and Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Both of Maryland's senators were tested for anthrax and put on antibiotics as a precaution yesterday, as anxiety over bioterrorism reached into the highest levels of government.

Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes were among a small number of senators receiving anthrax tests as authorities took what they acknowledged were extraordinary measures to protect the health of some of the nation's top elected officials.

The Marylanders have offices in the same wing of a Senate building where an aide to Majority Leader Tom Daschle opened an envelope Monday containing a powder that tested positive for anthrax.

Daschle said investigators had determined that the anthrax strain was a "very strong ... very potent form." His office, and those of at least 11 other senators, are likely to remain closed today as biohazard teams continue testing the air, door knobs, curtains and other surfaces for traces of the deadly bacteria.

"That's pretty scary, to be told the Capitol is now a crime site and you're now being tested for anthrax - and then to be handed an antibiotic as a health precaution, that's a pretty intense thing," said Mikulski, who was notified at home before dawn that her office was among those being closed and that her entire Washington staff was among those who would be tested.

As many as 1,000 congressional aides and others who had visited suites near Daschle's office on Monday lined up to have their nasal passages swabbed for traces of inhaled anthrax spores. All were given a three-day supply of Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax, to take as a precaution in case their tests proved positive.

As the specter of bioterrorism hovered over Washington, officials at various centers of power said they were resolved to conduct business as usual, even as some were forced to come to grips with potential new threats to their safety.

"Our whole country is anxious," said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman. "That's why we're waging the campaign we are - to get back our security. It manifests itself in different ways."

Like businesses across the country, the government has imposed new security measures for handling mail, issuing safety guidelines to employees and giving mailroom workers special briefings.

On Capitol Hill, where the anthrax alarm turned out to be more than just a scare, officials said extreme measures were called for.

"We are going to err on the side of caution," said Lt. Dan Nichols, a Capitol Police spokesman, in explaining why authorities closed every office that uses the same ventilation system as the one serving Daschle's. "We're going to take extraordinary, extraordinary measures to ensure the safety and security of the congressional community during this time."

Nichols said authorities do not believe the anthrax entered the air-conditioning system or posed a grave danger, but he said police took the steps to be sure that the spores had not spread.

Capitol Hill remained on heightened alert throughout the day. Mail delivery to lawmakers' offices, suspended Monday, did not resume. The Capitol was still closed to tours.

Capitol Police were considering adding mail-screening technology that can detect hazardous substances inside letters and packages. With security extremely tight, there was also talk about calling in the National Guard to relieve members of the Capitol Police who have been working overtime for more than a month.

In the building where anthrax was found, yellow police tape sealed off offices. Phones rang unanswered in Sarbanes' suite because aides could not get in to turn on the answering machine.

"Who knows what we're going to encounter in the days ahead," said Sarbanes, who has started taking Cipro. "We must be prepared to address those [threats] as best we can, but in a very determined and clear-headed and tough-minded way."

But some warned against "scare talk" about anthrax.

"What I'm beginning to see is overreaction - overreaction in the news media, overreaction here," said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat. "I think we all ought to take a deep breath here and put this in context. Yes, anthrax can be deadly ... but it is also true it is very hard to have it affect many people."

At the White House, security measures had been stepped up even more after last month's terrorist attacks.

"It's appropriate for the American people to be concerned. The president is concerned," said press secretary Ari Fleischer.

One Bush administration official said that, despite working in what could be seen as a key target for another terrorist attack, most White House employees felt well protected.

"People are being more careful, but they feel very comfortable we have the best safety systems in place," he said. "We've had it pretty easy" compared to those who've lost family members and friends in the various attacks.

At the State Department, employees have tried to avoid adding to any hysteria.

"I don't feel any different in my day-to-day routine," said Reeker. "Everybody's going about their business. We're busier than ever."

Last Friday, as the department's chief spokesman, Richard Boucher, was conducting a foreign policy briefing for reporters, he was interrupted by a loudspeaker announcing the second case that week of a suspicious powdery substance found in the building.

Boucher continued without skipping a beat, and the substance, like the one found earlier in the week, was later determined to be benign.

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