Public suffering from first-class postal paranoia

For some in D.C. area, arrival of mail sparks worries about anthrax

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 25, 2001|By Michael James and Ellen Gamerman | Michael James and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Some schools won't let students near the mail. Area poison centers are inundated with calls from people whose newly arrived letters look slightly suspicious. And postal carriers are being turned away when they bring mail to the door.

"Some of the mail carriers are being shunned and told to throw down the mail on the doorstep," said Monica Gaines, a 25-year U.S. Postal Service veteran who works at the Lamond Riggs mail facility in Washington.

"A lot of people are saying they don't want their mail. There's a lot of anger, and, frankly, I can understand people's concerns."

The delivery of the U.S. mail, for so long a staple of American life, has worried some that every letter delivered is another possibility of bioterrorism hitting home. As federal authorities are on high alert for anthrax that's known to have killed two Washington postal workers, fear and apprehension are permeating many area buildings where a letter - anthrax-laced or not - might show up.

Special precautions are in effect in offices, such as that of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, where office manager Kathy Hicks and two of her staff workers have masks and latex gloves ready to go for the opening of mail. Right now, though, there's no mail to open - it's all being inspected for anthrax by authorities.

"We haven't gotten any mail in a week, but we'll be ready for it when it gets here," Hicks said. "I'm personally not going to be nervous; I'm going to be careful. I'll be opening some mail in a closed room, maybe with a mask on."

Health officials say that the odds of getting an anthrax-tainted letter through the postal service - which handles 208 million letters and packages a day - are extremely small. But Postmaster General John F. Potter said yesterday that he can't guarantee the safety of the mail, and he urged Americans to wash their hands after handling letters.

Government officials said most Americans seem to be taking the anthrax threat in stride and are continuing to fetch and open their mail every day, realizing the remote odds of getting the disease via letter. But a handful, especially those who work around mail, aren't comforted.

Bike courier Anthony Hart said he plans to open mail at his Washington home with a bandana tied around his face, to avoid inhaling any stray anthrax spores that could have stuck to his mail from a tainted letter.

"If I get mail that's not addressed from one of my friends, I'll definitely mask up and take all kinds of precautions," said Hart, 34, a district native who also intends to open his letters "outside, in the wind," and has set aside biking gloves for letter-opening.

"I've got to take care of my own security at home," he said. "At first the anthrax was just a scare, but after the two postal workers died and I saw there was no quick cure, I really got a little afraid to open my mail."

Hart is still making deliveries to Washington office workers, but some have jokingly asked him to open the envelopes for them. He declines.

Mail service has been disrupted across much of the city after the anthrax deaths of the district postal workers. When it resumes, some Washingtonians will literally hold their breath when they open their letters.

Jane Sharp, who will have a baby in four months, knows how dangerous a dose of Cipro could be to her pregnancy. So she will throw out any letter that arrives at her northwest Washington home without a return address.

"Why wouldn't I be nervous?" she said. "My mother called me up last night with instructions from the news about how to open the envelope. If it were really suspicious, I'd put the letter in a plastic bag and call somebody."

In Maryland, at least one school system has decided to take the precautionary step of keeping children away from the daily mail sorting.

Howard County officials decided in a meeting yesterday to stop having students sort, deliver or directly handle mail.

"It's a matter of security and a matter of responsibility," said Howard Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. "We're concerned about this, really concerned. I don't lose sleep over too many things, but I've been losing sleep over this."

O'Rourke said the ban will go on indefinitely, considering the state of the nation's affairs.

"We're trying to have a balance of stability and confidence, wariness and caution. So from now on, until we know or hear differently, sorting mail is an adult activity."

The Maryland Poison Center at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy has been deluged with calls from people seeking information on anthrax, often after receiving unusual or suspicious mail. Officials said more than 130 people called in the past 13 days.

Debra McLaughlin is no stranger to terrorism anxiety in Washington. The woman next to her on an airplane bound for the capital recently asked if the psoriasis on her hands was anthrax. But the district resident thinks the anthrax is bound for Capitol Hill and the media, not her mail slot.

"I don't think it's directed toward me," she said. "I'm no bigwig."

Other Washingtonians are still treading carefully, fearful that somehow the anthrax hot spots in the central post office could taint their letters.

"I've been washing my hands so much," said Jennifer McGee, a lobbyist who now keeps disinfectant cloths in her desk drawer. She left work early yesterday because she felt she was coming down with a cold, which added to her anthrax angst, and was girding herself for opening mail at home.

McGee will not open unsolicited mail and will toss her unwanted mail down her building's garbage chute instead of keeping it in her apartment.

"I'm really nervous," she said. "I think this is all being done by the same people who were behind September 11th. They've brought us to our knees."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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