WASHINGTON - Five days after an envelope with anthrax frightened thousands on Capitol Hill, medical officials said the danger had passed.
No new findings of anthrax exposure were discovered in about 1,400 tests on members of Congress, their aides, media representatives and visitors to the Capitol complex, Deputy Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu said yesterday.
Moritsugu also amended downward the initial report of those testing positive for the disease after the anthrax-laden envelope was opened in the office of the Senate majority leader. It turns out that 28 people tested positive for exposure, not 31, as was originally reported. Three of the tests were determined to be negative after further analysis, he said.
No one in Washington is known to have developed an anthrax infection, but at least 120 people who may have been exposed are taking antibiotics as a precaution.
Results of an additional 2,500 nasal swab tests conducted this week on Capitol Hill are not known, Moritsugu said. Anthrax tests were suspended Thursday after officials concluded that exposure had been limited to the immediate vicinity of South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle's office in the Hart Senate office building.
"The news is very, very good," said Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and heart surgeon, who has become the Senate's unofficial anthrax spokesman.
House and Senate office buildings and the House side of the Capitol remained closed for an environmental sweep that congressional leaders ordered Wednesday when alarm over the possible spread of the potentially lethal bacteria was at its peak.
Work will continue through the weekend so the buildings can reopen by Tuesday, when the House and Senate are scheduled to go back into session. But Moritsugu said he does not expect additional anthrax spores to be found.
Fears that a letter containing anthrax had also been delivered to the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert turned out to be unfounded. The FBI was called in Wednesday to investigate after a Hastert aide recalled spotting an envelope similar to the one addressed to Daschle.
A spokesman for the Capitol police said yesterday that "nothing of a hazardous nature was found."
That false alarm as well as the initial report of more than 30 positive tests for anthrax exposure had fed fears that ventilation shafts and tunnels throughout the complex might be affected, prompting Hastert to adjourn the House on Wednesday and order House office buildings cleared. The Senate, wary of sending a signal of panic, stayed in session until Thursday afternoon, and the Senate side remained open yesterday to lawmakers, staff and media.
Even so, a degree of panic spread across the city as hundreds placed calls to doctors, hospitals and medical facilities seeking anthrax tests, said Dr. Larry Siegel of the Washington health department. He stressed yesterday that such tests are not necessary.
Of the 28 people believed to have been exposed to anthrax, all were on the fifth or sixth floor of the Hart building Monday in the vicinity of Daschle's office. Twenty are on Daschle's staff, two work for Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat whose office adjoins Daschle's, and six are Capitol police officers called to the scene after the letter was opened.
Officials have declined to release the names of those who tested positive, and some details of what happened in Daschle's office that day have yet to be made public. Authorities are continuing to advise those who were in that section of the Hart building on Monday to complete their 60-day course of antibiotics, even though their tests turned up negative for anthrax exposure is negative.
"If you let this go for days [without treatment] you would likely die," said Greg Martin, chief of infectious diseases at the National Naval Medical Center.
But officials have stressed that antibiotics are 100 percent effective in treating the strain of anthrax dispersed on Capitol Hill this week, which was identical to the variety also sent to media outlets in Florida and New York.