Postal employees are rankled

Workers question why anthrax case did not close office

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 23, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Postal workers who handled anthrax-tainted mail sent to Congress went untested for exposure to the deadly bacteria even after thousands of Capitol Hill staff members were examined, prompting postal employees to question yesterday whether they were treated with the same care as the city's political elite.

"With Congress, they shut them down, had them tested, didn't let them go back to work," said Vanessa Slaughter, 36, a mail clerk from Forestville. "But they didn't do anything for us. We should have been tested a long time ago. Instead they just said, `Y'all will be all right.'"

Such complaints filled the air outside D.C. General Hospital, where hundreds of postal workers arrived from the Brentwood central mail facility for anthrax tests and 10-day doses of antibiotics - precautions that took on heightened seriousness after news yesterday that two Washington-area postal workers had died of suspected anthrax infection and another had been diagnosed with the dangerous inhaled form of the disease.

Last week, after an aide in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office opened an envelope containing anthrax, federal health officials sealed off a portion of the building where the letter was opened and quickly tested office members for exposure.

But on the advice of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, postal workers who could have handled the letter were not immediately tested for anthrax exposure or given preventive antibiotics. A CDC official told reporters that earlier testing of postal workers at handling facilities in New York and Florida, where other anthrax-tainted letters were processed, had turned up no evidence of anthrax exposure.

However, on Oct. 15, as testing was beginning on Daschle's staff members, postal authorities in New Jersey announced that two employees were being treated for possible anthrax exposure. The letter to Daschle, and another to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, were postmarked in Trenton.

Last Tuesday, officials expanded their testing on Capitol Hill to include hundreds of people who had been near Daschle's office on the day the envelope was opened. By Thursday, all House and Senate offices had been closed and the House suspended its legislative business as investigators in protective suits searched for traces of anthrax in offices across the Hill.

The same day, at the request of postal authorities, environmental testing began at the Brentwood facility, which processes most of the mail sent to the District of Columbia. But an initial sweep found no evidence of anthrax spores. Hundreds of employees continued to work in the building.

On Friday, the CDC decided the entire facility should be tested, according to Deborah Willhite, senior vice president for governmental relations at the Postal Service.

Authorities closed the Brentwood facility on Sunday, after learning that a postal employee had fallen ill with the inhaled form of anthrax. Officials began checking more than 2,000 postal workers for anthrax exposure.

Angry questions

Yesterday, postal employees angrily questioned why they had been working in an anthrax hot zone for days when Capitol Hill was in the process of shutting down. Some wondered whether the decisions favored the powerful: well-heeled congressional staff were tested but working-class mail carriers were not.

"I would imagine they think we're expendable," said Michael Odom, 47, a clerk who handles mail near the collection area where at least two infected postal employees worked. "When they closed Congress, they should have thought the post office was just as important."

The Bush administration's homeland security chief, Tom Ridge, defended the approach taken by authorities.

"They obviously proceeded aggressively on the Hill in response to that threat," Ridge told reporters at the White House. "They knew they had a hot spot; they had identified it. It took a while to learn that they had a problem at Brentwood."

`A collaborative process'

Ridge pointed out that as the government struggles to confront the bioterror threat, no clear guidelines have been set for testing workers and closing facilities.

"The decisions with regard to the closing of the postal facilities, the offices on the Hill, AMI [the tabloid newspaper company in Florida, where a worker died of anthrax], they're made in concert with public health officials, CDC, local elected officials and others," Ridge said. "It's a very collaborative process and one that I think has proven to work very successfully in these venues and will continue to work very successfully."

Some postal employees said they dreaded returning to work at the sprawling mail facility, whose sorting rooms have no windows and whose air-filtration system was not designed to combat bioterrorism.

"For ventilation, you open a door - that's it," said Slaughter, who complained that postal management seemed to ignore workers' concerns about anthrax. "We had to beg them for days just to get gloves."

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