BWI facility to be tested for anthrax

Mail center workers advised to begin taking antibiotics

`This is a precaution'

No contamination indicated, says Postal Service

October 24, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt and Johnathon E. Briggs | Laura Barnhardt and Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County officials said yesterday that couriers, truck drivers and other private employees who recently worked in an express mail center in Linthicum that is to be tested for anthrax contamination should begin taking antibiotics for possible exposure to the potentially lethal bacteria.

U.S. Postal Service officials said yesterday that they have seen no indication of anthrax contamination at the mail center, about a half-mile from the main terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Anne Arundel officials, acting on advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said "contractual" employees who have been in the mail center since Oct. 10 should join the 200 Postal Service workers from the facility and begin a 10-day course of antibiotics.

"This is a precaution," said County Health Officer Frances Phillips. She said up to 300 private employees could be affected, but she reported that federal authorities said postal customers did not need to be treated or tested yet.

"It's a very different scenario than the one in Brentwood," she said, referring to the Washington mail-handling facility where two employees have died of inhalation anthrax and two others are sick with the illness - including Leroy Richmond, who also worked three days a week at the BWI mail center.

Authorities have said that the number of anthrax cases at Brentwood leads them to believe the contamination that sickened Richmond occurred there and probably not at the BWI facility.

The BWI facility remained closed yesterday, roped off with yellow tape and guarded by Postal Service police. The 60,000-square-foot facility was to have been tested for contamination yesterday by the CDC, but the CDC team was delayed by its work at the Brentwood post office, said Postal Service spokesman Bob Novak.

Novak said yesterday that results were pending on tests for anthrax exposure that were given at D.C. General Hospital to 200 Postal Service employees from the BWI facility.

The Linthicum mail center handles mostly express mail and airmail, but the spokesman said it is possible that an anthrax-laced, first-class letter sent to U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle passed through the facility.

As many as 300 employees who work for airlines, couriers and agencies for temporary employment had access to a back room where express mail is processed, county officials estimated.

The mail center is "C" building in the Cargo Complex at BWI, a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of brown industrial buildings with garages. It is in the middle of a row of numbered structures used by air cargo companies. Trucks arrived at and left from those businesses yesterday.

The Postal Service continued to process mail at building "E," about 100 feet from the closed facility. Virtually no mail was in the "C" building when it was ordered closed Sunday, said Novak, the spokesman. He said mail for about 400 post office box holders in that facility was being rerouted to a mail center in Elkridge.

He said mail will remain in the post office boxes until the BWI center reopens. If tests show no contamination, the facility could reopen by the end of the week, he said.

After a conference call with officials of federal health agencies, including the CDC, Phillips said yesterday that recipients of express mail should not be concerned about contracting anthrax unless they notice something suspicious about the package.

County Executive Janet S. Owens said she called her second news conference in as many days in part to quell rumors of suspected anthrax cases in the county.

No one in the county is believed to have contracted the illness, officials said.

"There are no suspected, no presumptive [cases], no anything at this point," Phillips said.

If tests indicate the presence of anthrax in the Linthicum building, the contractual employees, who have been urged to go to their physicians for antibiotics, probably will be tested for anthrax exposure and placed on a 90-day course of antibiotics, county health officials said.

The county has opened an anthrax hot line to answer questions about the bacteria and printed 5,000 fliers about how to handle suspicious mail and packages.

County health officials are urging residents to get flu shots as early as possible this year, in part to eliminate confusion over whether someone with flulike symptoms might have contracted anthrax.

For information about county flu-shot clinics, call 410-222-7343. For anthrax information, call 410-222-7256.

Sun staff writer Rona Kobell contributed to this article.

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