State to offer antibiotics to several Md. companies

Health Dept. also promises to inspect BWI mail center

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 25, 2001|By Michael Dresser and Johnathon E. Briggs | Michael Dresser and Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

State health authorities will offer preventive antibiotics to hundreds of workers at private facilities that receive large volumes of mail from a Washington postal center contaminated with anthrax, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday.

The health department also promised to inspect an express mail center at Baltimore-Washington International Airport today for the presence of the bacteria. State officials acted after Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens complained that federal agencies had not shown up to evaluate the facility, closed since Sunday, when a worker who split his time between there and the Washington center was diagnosed with anthrax.

In addition to offering antibiotics to mail processing workers at about a half-dozen Maryland companies, the state will evaluate their mail facilities to detect any anthrax spores. Glendening said the state received inspection requests from several companies that use automated opening and sorting equipment to receive mail from the Brentwood postal processing center in Washington.

The Brentwood center is where postal workers are believed to have processed an anthrax-laced letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Since then, several Brentwood workers have been diagnosed with the disease, including two who died.

Hazardous materials teams began inspections yesterday at a SunTrust mail processing facility that employs about 300 people in Glen Burnie. The facility receives about 50,000 pieces of mail - mostly bill payments - from Brentwood each day, said Scott Wilfong, chief executive of SunTrust Bank Maryland.

The state expects to conduct similar evaluations of at least six other private mail-handling operations over the next two or three days, Glendening said. He encouraged other employers who receive shipments from Brentwood to contact their local health departments to arrange for inspections.

Aides to the governor said one of the other facilities to be inspected is a First Union mail-handling center in Columbia. They did not release the names of the other companies because employees had not been notified.

The governor said the action was being taken in line with the most recent advice of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Glendening emphasized that the inspections were a precaution. "There is a very remote possibility of any exposure," he said. He also said he does not believe there is any threat to residents receiving mail at home.

The state will make antibiotics available to employees at the mail handling facilities as a precaution. But state Health Secretary Georges Benjamin said officials are not urging workers to take the antibiotics and will explain possible side-effects.

The state's decision on the BWI mail center came after Owens was asked about the delayed inspection at a news conference with Glendening. When she expressed frustration that the CDC and Environmental Protection Agency had yet to send teams to the center, Benjamin and Glendening jumped in with assurances that the state would conduct its own inspection.

A Postal Service spokesman, Bob Novak, said an EPA team had been expected yesterday at the 60,000-square-foot facility about a half-mile from the main airport terminal. He said inspectors apparently were delayed because they were concentrating on Washington-area mail centers.

But Bill Hudson, an EPA spokesman, said later that the testing at the BWI center "was never set up." He said the agency was awaiting direction from the postal service and the CDC, adding, "We certainly could have done that [testing] had that decision been made."

The BWI operation came under suspicion for anthrax contamination because Leroy Richmond, a Brentwood worker who was hospitalized with anthrax, also worked three days a week at the airport center. It has been closed until environmental tests are done.

Officials said results were pending on tests given to 200 employees of the BWI center. Authorities have said that the number of anthrax cases among Brentwood workers leads them to believe that Richmond was more likely to have been exposed there rather than at the BWI center.

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